By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- The Massachusetts Senate passed a multi-billion dollar transportation bond bill Thursday evening, setting up election-year negotiations with the House on the final version of legislation replete with pet projects and policy directives.

In rapid succession, the Senate considered an avalanche of amendments that mostly earmarked project funds under the borrowing bill (S 2023/ H 3882), which hit the Senate floor with a $13.15 billion price tag. Out of 237 amendments, the Senate adopted 55, rejected 114 while 67 were withdrawn.

An attempt by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr to attach a policy rider repealing a 1993 law that restricts privatization by state agencies was ruled outside the scope of the bill and never got a vote.

Another Republican attempt to exempt funding in the bond bill from the law - sometimes called the Pacheco Law - went down on a 6-31 vote as Sens. Michael Barrett (D-Lexington) and Brian Joyce (D-Milton) voted with the four-member minority.

"What the minority party would like to do with the offering of this amendment is to eliminate that standard, so you could privatize if you're in the executive branch and you're running the executive branch, and you've got some friends out there in the private contractor world and you want to hand out some contracts, you can go back to what they were doing," Sen. Marc Pacheco said. He said, "You could go back to the days when people are riding around in limousines and all being charged to the taxpayers."

Later in the debate, Pacheco raised doubts about a Pioneer Institute study's financial backing, and Tarr took issue with the suggestions Pacheco was making.

"I believe we go down a very, very dangerous path when we suggest motives of the nature the gentleman just suggests about anyone in this chamber," said Tarr, who said the procurement laws provide "numerous safeguards."

"I was talking about the fact that the Pioneer Institute puts these reports out, doesn't want to list their funders. That's a fact," Pacheco said.

The bill also includes $2.3 billion for the South Coast rail project, $1.3 billion for the Green Line extension, $325 million for South Station improvements, and $175 million for the Springfield-Worcester, Boston-Cape Cod, and Pittsfield-New York City rail projects.

In a bill that doubles fines for fare evasion, the Senate also provided early retirement for the state's toll takers, who are set to be phased out of employment as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation replaces toll booths with electronic tolling - beginning with the Tobin Bridge.

"It's about fairness," said Senate Transportation Chairman Tom McGee, a Lynn Democrat, who said the elimination of the 400 toll-taker jobs would save $50 million.

Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat, said the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight Committee is drafting a report that she hopes will be incorporated into an information technology bond bill, addressing the failures of state websites, including the Health Connector, and how to avoid such pitfalls on future IT projects.

"It's clear that what's happened in the past has not worked out," Creem said before a proposal by Sen. James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat, requiring independent oversight of a Registry of Motor Vehicles IT upgrade was rejected on a 10-28 vote. Joyce said the RMV contract already includes independent oversight.

The debate was punctuated by frequent hacks and coughs of members, who shared cold remedies, and made jokes about the strained condition of Tarr's voice, as a number of members were clearly suffering from colds.

The House took a different approach when it passed its version, largely sitting idle as leaders assembled a package of earmarks to fuse onto the bill. The Senate version includes an extra $100 million for mitigation in cities and towns along a planned commuter rail track to Fall River and New Bedford, five years of local road funding, and it aims to pay off the debts in 20 years rather than 30.

Senators unanimously adopted an amendment directing the MBTA to post an annual itemized budget on its website. 

Senators rejected another Tarr proposal, on a 12-26 vote, that would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to brief lawmakers on where the state stands with complying with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005.

"Tell us where you are at in terms of us complying with the federal law so we as policy makers can react," said Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican.

The version clearing the Senate included $2 million for safety improvements on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield, unspecified funding for relocating highway ramps in Bellingham, and $8.5 million for the reconstruction of River Street in Cambridge, among other earmarks.

The bill includes language filed by Sen. Anthony Petruccelli overhauling the state's regulation of billboards.

Colleen Quinn contributed reporting.