By Bob Katzen

THE HOUSE AND SENATE

There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.

ELECT PRESIDENT BY POPULAR VOTE

This week, Beacon Hill Roll Call reports on what is perhaps one of the most underreported yet very important political stories in Massachusetts and the nation: The Bay State and eight other states have passed laws that sponsors say would in effect, result in electing the president by popular vote instead of through the Electoral College system. The House 114-35 and the Senate 28-9 approved the measure in July 2010 and it was signed into law in August by Gov. Deval Patrick.

The president and vice president are not actually elected directly by the voters but rather by "electors" who are elected by popular vote from each state. There are 538 electors with each state assigned a number of electoral votes equal to the number of its members of Congress. The District of Columbia has three electoral votes. Electors are chosen by political parties and pledge to vote for the winner of the state's popular vote.

Every four years there is talk about abolishing the Electoral College and electing the president based on the national popular vote. This talk intensified after the 2000 election in which Al Gore (50,999,897 votes) won 543,895 more popular votes than George W. Bush (50,456,002 votes) but was beaten by Bush in the Electoral College by a 271 to 266 margin. Eventually, though, the debate settles down and the system stays the same.


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One of the key reasons for the reluctance to change is that abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment that is either proposed by two-thirds of each house of Congress or by a constitutional convention that would be called if 34 states requested it. In both cases, the proposed amendment would then have to be ratified by 38 states in order to become part of the Constitution. Both of these avenues are difficult, at best.

Along comes Fair Vote, a group with the goal of electing the president by popular vote without actually abolishing the Electoral College. It establishes the agreement among the states to elect the president by national popular vote. The agreement would require states that join the pact to cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins a majority of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The pact would become effective when states representing at least 270 electoral votes -- a majority of the 538-vote Electoral College -- join the pact. It is a clever end run around the Constitution that takes advantage of a part of the document that supporters say gives the states exclusive and complete power to determine how to allocate their electoral votes. The pact would likely be challenged in the courts if it ever takes effect.

According to Fair Vote's website, the bill has been signed into law in the District of Columbia and eight states possessing 132 electoral votes -- 49 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate the legislation. The states include California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington State and Vermont.

Supporters say the Electoral College is an antiquated system that is inherently undemocratic and gives voters in states with a large number of electoral votes more voting power than those in other states. They argue the system was designed by the framers because they did not trust the common citizen to vote correctly. They note that presidential candidates now concentrate on and campaign in a handful of swing states while ignoring most of the states that are already solidly Democratic or Republican. Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, Senate chair of the Elections Laws Committee, supports the law. He said, "I believe every vote should be as important regardless of what state you are from, and it seems that each presidential election year only those votes in certain states matter in the outcome."

Some opponents said the Electoral College is a good system that has worked well and should not be changed. They argue it actually gives voters in smaller states power that they would not have if the president was elected strictly by a popular vote system in which candidates would concentrate on states with larger populations. Some argued that electing the president by popular vote would give wealthy fringe and third-party candidates a chance at success by focusing their efforts in a few major urban centers. Others said that the change to a popular vote is a very serious issue that needs more study. Rep. Robert Koczera, D-New Bedford, weighed in, "The compact hijacks (the) existing Electoral College system by co-opting electoral votes for the popular vote winner. ... The peril of the compact is the unintended consequences. ... It encourages third-party candidates, single-issue, regional candidacies and independents. ... Third-party candidates fragment the vote."

(A "Yes" vote is for the law making Massachusetts a member of the popular vote pact. A "No" vote is against the law.)

Rep. Jennifer Benson, Yes; Rep. Sheila Harrington, Was not yet elected; Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Was not yet elected; Sen. James Eldridge, Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes

ALSO ON BEACON HILL

CONSUMERS MUST PAY 6.25 PERCENT SALES TAX ON AMAZON.COM: Gov. Patrick announced a deal under which Amazon.com will begin collecting the Massachusetts 6.25 percent sales tax for online purchases after Nov. 1, 2013. Under a Supreme Court ruling, online retailers are not required to collect the tax unless they have a substantial physical facility in the state. Amazon developed a physical presence in the state when it recently purchased a robotics company in North Reading and opened a research office in Cambridge. The Internet superstore is reportedly also interested in larger facilities in the Bay State. The Patrick Administration has been negotiating with Amazon for months.

Supporters of the tax said brick-and-mortar retailers in the state are losing millions of dollars in annual sales and the state is missing out on millions in tax revenue. They noted consumers often go to brick-and-mortar retail stores to look at items and then buy them on the Internet to get a lower price and also save the sales tax.

Opponents said this is nothing more than a backdoor tax hike that will cost consumers millions of dollars. They noted it would also discourage other online retailers from bringing a facility and jobs to Massachusetts.

AUTOMATIC TOLLS ON MASS PIKE: Gov. Patrick announced plans to implement an electronic tolling system on the state's toll roads within three years. According to Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, the switch would result in the loss of jobs for 80 percent to 90 percent of the more than 400 full- and part-time toll collectors.

Davey said it currently costs the state around $55 million per year to collect some $300 million in tolls. He noted it would cost an estimated $100 million to install the new automatic technology and pointed out that the new system would pay for itself in less than two years.

The Patrick Administration argued this would allow vehicles to travel through the toll plaza without slowing down, which currently causes traffic jams and bottlenecks. They noted it would also eliminate the expense for much-needed renovations to the decaying toll plaza and booths.

NEW CABINET SECRETARIES: As he prepares for his final two years in office, Gov. Patrick today announced the appointment of four new cabinet secretaries to replace four who will be departing. Perhaps the most important is Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, who will be replaced by Glen Shor, the current executive director of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority. The secretary is the governor's budget and fiscal chief.

Other changes include Brockton School Superintendent Matt Malone replacing Paul Reville as secretary of education; John Polanowicz, CEO of St. Elizabeth's Medical Center taking over for JudyAnn Bigby as secretary of health and human services; and Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral replacing Marybeth Heffernan as secretary of public safety and security.

OFF TO A STUDY COMMITTEE: Various committees recommended that many proposals be shipped off to "study committees" where measures are never actually studied. The move is an easy way to kill legislation without legislators voting on the bill itself. Here are some of the bills on their way to study committees.

CHILD CARE TAX CREDIT (H 3391): Gives a tax credit of up to $2,500 to taxpayers who use child care services.

SELF-EMPLOYED HEALTH INSURANCE (H 3195): Allows self-employed taxpayers to deduct their health insurance premiums on their state taxes.

INSPECT FIRE ESCAPES (H 3298): Requires fire escapes to be examined and certified for structural adequacy and safety every five years.

NO CELLPHONES FOR PRISONERS (H 2918): Prohibits the possession and use of cellphones by prison inmates.

SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES (H 2387): Requires that all school buses seating more than 16 and manufactured after Jan. 1, 2013, be equipped with seat belts.

PUNISH SANCTUARY CITIES AND TOWNS (H 1563): Withholds local aid from any cities or towns that do not enforce federal immigration laws. Also applies to communities that have established themselves as "sanctuary cities or towns" that offer protection in a variety of ways to illegal immigrants.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

SPECIAL TIM CAHILL TRIAL EDITION

The trial of former State Treasurer Tim Cahill ended with a hung jury. Cahill was accused of violating state ethics laws by using $1.5 million in Lottery funds for an ad campaign that was designed to aid his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial bid. Cahill testified he approved the ad campaign in his capacity as state treasurer to respond to a series of negative ads by the Republican Governors Association attacking the Lottery's management. Attorney General Martha Coakley has not decided whether she will retry the case.

"It's elation. Total elation. I'm relieved and I'm thrilled. ... Life's too short to be angry and I'm too old."

Tim Cahill

"I continue to believe in the strength of this case and the strength of our justice system and we are reviewing our options going forward."

Martha Coakley

"It will be interesting to see if Coakley wastes taxpayer dollars for a retrial after she failed to prove what nearly everyone knows to be true: that Cahill defrauded the people of Massachusetts to help his failed political career. For lawmakers, this means all they have to do to continue abusing their office for political gain is have a shred of plausible deniability and Coakley won't be able to touch them."

Tim Buckley, spokesman for the State Republican Party

"With all the effort and the resources that the state used to prosecute Tim ... and for them not to make their case feels good for us."

Tina Cahill, wife of Tim Cahill

"It felt like the commonwealth didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt the required things they had to prove."

Unidentified juror

"We all shared a regret about not knowing more about this case and therefore being selected. ... I am dying to read the paper and find out what y'all been writing."

Unidentified juror

HOW LONG WAS LAST WEEK'S SESSION? Beacon Hill Roll Call tracks the length of time that the House and Senate were in session each week. Many legislators say that legislative sessions are only one aspect of the Legislature's job and that a lot of important work is done outside of the House and Senate chambers. They note that their jobs also involve committee work, research, constituent work and other matters that are important to their districts. Critics say that the Legislature does not meet regularly or long enough to debate and vote in public view on the thousands of pieces of legislation that have been filed. They note that the infrequency and brief length of sessions are misguided and lead to irresponsible late night sessions and a mad rush to act on dozens of bills in the days immediately preceding the end of an annual session.

During the week of December 10-14, the House met for a total of 37 minutes while the Senate met for a total of one hour and 3 minutes.

Bob Katzen welcomes feedback at bob@beaconhillrollcall.com.