By Bob Katzen
THE HOUSE AND SENATE: Beacon Hill Roll Call records the votes of local representatives on two roll calls and local senators on two from the week of Feb. 10-14.
SUPPLEMENTAL BUDGET (H 3899, S 2010)
House 146-2, Senate 37-0, approved different versions of a supplemental budget to pay expenses for the current fiscal year. The price tag on the House version is estimated to be $154 million while the Senate package came in at $196 million. A conference committee will likely hammer out a compromise version. One of the major differences is that the Senate version does not include a freeze in unemployment insurance rates adopted by the House. The payments are made by employers and go into a fund that provides benefits to laid-off workers.
Supporters said the package is fiscally responsible and funds necessary programs, including several that are running out of money.
Opponents said they cannot vote for this additional $196 million in spending that is on top of the massively excessive $34 billion state budget that was based on unnecessary tax hikes and provided insufficient local aid.
(A "Yes" vote is for the budget. A "No" vote is against it.)
Rep. Jennifer Benson, Yes; Rep. Sheila Harrington, Yes; Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes.
GAS LEAKS (H 3873)
House 152-0, approved and sent to the Senate legislation that would require gas leaks to be repaired by the gas company in a time frame based on a three-tier classification system of dangerousness. Grade One leaks are most likely to cause an explosion and would have to be repaired immediately. Grade Two leaks are expected to create a hazard in the future and would have to be fixed within 15 months, while Grade Three leaks are nonhazardous and would have to be re-evaluated every six months.
Another key provision requires gas companies to file major repair plans for aging infrastructure and pipes with the state and to apply for a rate increase from their customers to fund the repairs.
Supporters said the state's gas delivery system is the second oldest in the nation and has 5,700 miles of leak-prone distribution pipe and 20,000 known leaks. They noted the bill will help avoid gas leak tragedies, save lives and have a positive impact on the environment by reducing methane gas.
(A "Yes" vote is for the bill.)
Rep. Jennifer Benson, Yes; Rep. Sheila Harrington, Yes.
FOSTER CARE MORATORIUM (S 2010)
Senate 32-5, approved an amendment that would impose a six-month temporary moratorium on the Department of Children and Families' (DCF) placement in foster homes of any individuals or family members convicted of a felony unless an investigation finds that the placement poses no threat to the safety of the child. The amendment also requires the state to examine all existing foster care placements to ensure each placement is appropriate and the child is safe.
Amendment supporters said current DCF policies do not automatically disqualify prospective foster parents who have been convicted of crimes such as soliciting sex from a minor, possessing "obscene pornographic" material and assault and battery and instead allows them to seek a waiver. They cited recent media reports that there are currently 552 homes caring for children where the guardian has a prior criminal conviction.
Amendment opponents said the state commissioned the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the state's foster care system. They urged a comprehensive solution to solve the many problems at the troubled DCF.
(A "Yes" vote is for the moratorium. A "No" vote is against it.)
Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes.
ALSO ON BEACON HILL
GOOD SAMARITAN LAW (S 1993) -- The House approved a Senate-approved bill that would protect off-duty firefighters and EMTs from liability when providing emergency care. The current "Good Samaritan" law only protects civilians who are not trained in emergency response. Only final House and Senate approval are needed prior to the bill going to Gov. Deval Patrick for his signature.
Supporters said under current law, these firefighters and EMTs would be liable if anything went wrong as a result of their efforts to provide emergency care. The proposal has gained steam since the Boston Marathon bombing, in which hundreds of off-duty personnel were running in the race and then responded immediately after the bombing.
VACCINES (S 1971) -- Gov. Patrick signed into law a measure that would create the Vaccine Purchase Trust Fund to fund the purchase, storage and distribution of routine childhood immunizations. The state would charge an assessment on insurance companies for the costs. The new law also requires insurers to provide benefits for immunizations on each health-care plan and exempt the immunizations from copayments and deductibles.
Supporters say this law now makes all these important vaccines available at no cost to all children. They note passage of this law was more important than ever as an increasing number of states are granting exemptions from childhood vaccinations, causing the return of preventable illnesses including mumps and measles.
EZ-ID VEHICLE RECOGNITION (S 1712) -- The Transportation Committee heard testimony on legislation that would create a task force to study the feasibility of requiring all Massachusetts license plates to feature a symbol, like a star, diamond or heart, along with four numbers and letters. This system would replace the current system, which has six random letters and numbers.
Supporters said the new plates would make it easier for adults and children to remember license plate registrations and report them to law enforcement officials to track down vehicles used in child kidnappings and other crimes. They cited studies showing both children and adults have trouble recalling the current plates.
The two chairs of the committee both said they wanted more information on scientific studies that prove these symbols will make plates easier to remember.
DUAL LIQUOR LICENSES (H 3420) -- A bill before the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee would allow cities and towns to issue a liquor license allowing supermarkets to sell packaged alcohol and serve alcoholic drinks inside the store. Current law prohibits any establishment from offering both. The measure was filed on behalf of Wegman's Supermarket in Northborough, which noted it is allowed to do this in other states.
Supporters say this archaic law should be changed to leave the decision up to local communities.
Opponents say the new law would damage smaller local supermarkets, restaurants and liquor stores that do not have the space to do this.
PRICE GOUGING DURING EMERGENCIES (S 1113) -- The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee's hearing agenda also included legislation making it a crime to price gouge during a declared state emergency. The measure imposes up to a 2.5-year prison sentence and/or $50,000 fine on anyone who charges excessive prices for necessities including food, fuel and shelter.
WOMEN'S DEFENSE CORPS (H 2836) -- The House gave initial approval to a bill designating April 2 as Massachusetts Women's Defense Corps Remembrance Day. The day would recognize "the generous contributions of the approximately 18,000 women who volunteered to train as air raid wardens, drivers, communications personnel, canteen workers medics, chemical detections personnel and as emergency fire fighters during World War II."
OFFICIAL STATE SEASONING (H 3753) -- The House gave initial approval to a measure designating Bell's Seasoning as the official state seasoning. The seasoning was created by William Bell, a Boston inventor, in 1867 and has been manufactured in East Weymouth since 1971. The measure is sponsored by Bob Tallent, who is the National Sales Manager at Brady Enterprises, which owns Bell's Seasoning.