By Bob Katzen

THE HOUSE AND SENATE: Beacon Hill Roll Call records the votes of local representatives on one roll call and local senators on 11 from the week of May 19-23.

CHARTER SCHOOLS (H 4091)

House 114-35, approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would gradually lift the cap on charter schools in some Massachusetts communities. Lifting the cap would be allowed only in the lowest performing 10 percent of districts that are also at or near the current cap for the 2017-2018 academic year. The measure also requires troubled schools that are in danger of becoming underperforming schools to be designated as "challenge schools" and to develop two-year turnaround plans.

Supporters said the bill provides a very responsible and limited increase in the charter school caps and would only affect six districts. They noted it would also give a second chance to low-performing schools by allowing them to develop turnaround plans before being declared underperforming.

Opponents said the cap should not be lifted at all. They argued that these experimental schools have questionable performance records and are draining desperately needed funds and many of the best students from regular public schools.

(A "Yes" vote is for the bill. A "No" vote is against it.)

Rep. Jennifer Benson, Didn't Vote; Rep. Sheila Harrington, Yes.

APPROVE $36.4 BILLION FISCAL 2015 STATE BUDGET (S 4)

Senate 39-1, following two days and nights of debate, approved an estimated $36.4 billion fiscal 2015 state budget. During debate, the Senate added a bottom line of $130 million to the price tag. The House has approved a different version of the budget. A House-Senate conference committee will work out a compromise version and send it to Gov. Deval Patrick.

Supporters said the budget is a fiscally responsible and balanced one that funds important programs to the best of the state's ability during this difficult economy.

The lone opponent said the budget is fiscally irresponsible and is based on millions of dollars in taxes working families can't afford. He noted it also continues a trend of inadequate local aid to cities and towns.

(A "Yes" vote is for the budget. A "No" vote is against it.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, Yes.

SALES TAX-FREE HOLIDAY (S 4)

Senate 7-32, rejected an amendment allowing consumers to buy most products that cost under $2,500 on Saturday, Aug. 9, and Sunday, Aug. 10, without paying the state's 6.25 percent sales tax.

Supporters of the bill said that the holiday would boost retail sales and noted that consumers over the past several years have saved millions of dollars during similar tax-free holidays. They argued that the state's sales tax revenue loss would be offset by increased revenue from the meals and gas tax revenue generated by shoppers on those two days.

Some opponents of the bill said the state cannot afford the up to $40 million revenue loss and argued the holiday actually generates little additional revenue for stores because consumers would buy the products even without the tax-free days. They said that the Legislature should be looking at broader, deeper tax relief for individuals and businesses and not a tiny tax-free holiday. Others said that legislators should not vote for this tax holiday when they have not yet restored all the local aid, education and other program cuts made over the past few years.

(A "Yes" vote is for the tax-free holiday. A "No" vote is against it.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

REPEAL INDEXING OF GAS TAX (S 4)

Senate 8-31, rejected an amendment that would repeal the indexing of the gas tax to inflation.

Supporters of repeal said this indexing amounts to a permanent regular increase in the gas tax. They argued that future legislators, not some faceless, unaccountable economic index, should decide whether to raise the gas tax. They noted that if this index had been in place in 1992, the gas tax today would be 40 cents per gallon instead of 24 cents per gallon. 

Opponents of repeal said the indexing is a fair indicator of whether the gas tike should be hiked. They noted the indexing is essential to ensure that there is sufficient money to pay for any rise in the costs of the materials that are used for road and bridge repairs and other transportation projects. The argued that future legislators can always propose decreases in the gas tax.

(A "Yes" vote is for repealing indexing. A "No" vote is against repeal and favors indexing.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

REDUCE INCOME TAX RATE TO 5 PERCENT (S 4)

Senate 5-34, rejected an amendment reducing the income tax from 5.3 percent to 5 percent over three years.

Amendment supporters said that voters in 2000 approved a gradual reduction of that year's 5.85 percent tax to five percent by January 2003, and it is time for the Legislature to honor that vote. They argued that the billions of dollars saved by taxpayers will be pumped back into the economy.

Opponents said the state simply cannot afford to lose billions of dollars in revenue that will result in severe cuts to very important programs like education, local aid, mental-health and substance abuse.

(A "Yes" vote is for the reduction. A "No" vote is against it.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

REPEAL "ESTATE/DEATH" TAX (S 4)

Senate 4-34, rejected an amendment that would repeal Massachusetts' estate tax, also known as the death tax -- a tax on the value of the decedent's estate before distribution to any beneficiary. The first $1 million is exempt from this tax and the tax on anything more than $1 million is a graduated one that, according to the Department of Revenue's website, ranges from .8 percent to 16 percent.

Amendment supporters said this regressive tax is unfair and noted that Massachusetts is losing many residents who move to other states where this tax does not exist.

Amendment opponents said the state cannot afford the estimated $360 million annual loss in revenue.

(A "Yes" vote is for repeal of the tax. A "No" vote is against repeal and favors the tax.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

PAY SALES TAX ON ACTUAL SALE PRICE OF CELL PHONE (S 4)

Senate 13-25, rejected an amendment that would require consumers to pay the state's 6.25 sales tax only on the price they actually pay for a cellphone.

Under a current regulation by the Department of Revenue, the sales tax on the purchase of a bundled package -- a cellular phone discounted because it is sold along with the customer's one-, two- or three-year commitment to the seller's calling plan -- is based on the wholesale price that the store paid for it, not on the price actually paid by the consumer. That wholesale price is almost always higher than what the consumer paid for the phone.

For example, a phone has a suggested retail price of $500, but the store purchased it wholesale for $200 and then sold it at a discount for $50 because it came with a service agreement. Under current regulations, the state's 6.25 percent sales tax would be based on the $200, not on the $50 the customer actually paid. In that case, the retailer may choose to pay the additional sales tax, share it with the consumer or pass it entirely on to the consumer.

Supporters of the new proposal said it is ridiculous that a customer and/or a retailer is currently forced to pay a sales tax on an amount that was more than the actual transaction. They argued it is time to change this antiquated and unfair regulation and save retailers and consumers millions of dollars.

Opponents of the proposal said the state cannot afford the estimated $12 million revenue loss.

(A "Yes" vote is for the amendment calculating the tax based on the price the consumer paid. A "No" vote is against the amendment.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT (S 4)

Senate 7-32, rejected an amendment that would increase the earned income tax credit for low-income working families with children living at home from 15 percent to 30 percent of the federal credit. The credit is applied toward the taxpayer's liability, and if it exceeds the liability, the taxpayer receives the excess credit as a refund.

Amendment supporters said this increased credit will help thousands of low-income working families who are struggling to make ends meet and will result in many of them paying little or no state income tax.

Some amendment opponents said the increase would cost the state an estimated $130 million, which it cannot afford. Others said they might support the idea but that the proposal is a major change and should be filed as a separate bill that would go through the normal legislative process, including public hearings.

(A "Yes" vote is for the increase. A "No" vote is against it.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

TRANSPARENCY (S 4)

Senate 16-23, rejected an amendment that would require the state treasurer to post on its Open Checkbook website the name and the amount that the state has paid out in any severance and settlement agreements involving state employee disputes.

Amendment supporters said the average annual payout by the state averages more than $11 million. They argued that state officials often ignore public-record laws by stonewalling legitimate requests, charging exorbitant fees and making far more redactions than necessary.

Amendment opponents said a Senate committee is already working on a similar bill. They argued the idea should be considered as a separate piece of legislation that would go through the normal legislative process, including public hearings.

(A "Yes" vote is for the amendment. A "No" vote is against the amendment.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, Yes; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

USE SURPLUS FOR LOCAL AID TO CITIES AND TOWNS (S 4)

Senate 7-32, rejected an amendment that would require one-half of any state surplus tax revenue remaining at the end of this fiscal year on June 30 to be distributed to cities and towns as additional local aid. The amendment would cap the amount at $50 million.

Amendment supporters said this would promote fiscal responsibility and ensure that the Legislature does not squander any budget surplus. They argued that struggling cities and towns need this excess money.

Amendment opponents said it is irresponsible to promise any portion of a surplus to cities and towns without knowing what the state's financial situation will be at that time. They argued that the amendment would tie the hands of the Legislature.

(A "Yes" vote is for the amendment requiring that up to $50 million of surplus revenue go to local aid. A "No" vote is against the amendment.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

REVIEW ALL STATE CREDIT CARDS (S 4)

Senate 7-32, rejected an amendment requiring the state auditor to conduct an audit of every state-funded credit card distributed by state agencies and quasi-independent agencies.

Amendment supporters said there have been problems involving misuse of credit cards. They argued it is time to crack down and ensure the cards are not abused.

Amendment opponents said the amendment is unnecessary. They noted State Auditor Suzanne Bump has already made great progress in addressing this issue.

(A "Yes" vote is for the review of all credit cards. A "No" vote is against the review.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, No; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

WELFARE CHANGES (S 4)

Senate 12-17, rejected an amendment making changes in the state's welfare and Electronic Benefits Card (EBT Card) systems. Provisions include requiring newly issued or reissued EBT cards to have a photograph; terminating the benefits to any recipient who fails to notify the welfare department of a change of address; establishing that an absence from the state for more than 30 days means the recipient's Massachusetts residency has been abandoned; prohibiting the cards from being used to buy televisions, stereos, video games or consoles at rent-to-own stores; and penalizing store owners who knowingly sell prohibited items to a recipient.

Supporters said this long overdue overhaul of the welfare system is firm, fair and honest and will crack down on welfare abuse while offering many poor people a road to economic independence. They noted the House and Senate in November approved two different versions of a reform bill that have been stuck in a conference committee since then.

Amendment opponents urged senators to wait until a conference committee has hashed out a compromise version on which each branch can vote.

(A "Yes" vote is for the restrictions. A "No" vote is against them.)

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Yes; Sen. James Eldridge, No; Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, No.

ALSO ON BEACON HILL

ASSAULT ON POLICE OFFICERS (S 4) -- The House gave initial approval to a bill imposing a mandatory 10-year sentence on someone who commits an assault or an assault and battery on a state, local or MBTA police officer by discharging a firearm, rifle, shotgun, assault weapon or covert weapon while the officer is engaged in his or her duties.

MOVE OVER FOR EMERGENCY VEHICLES (H 3036) -- The House gave initial approval to a bill expanding the current "Move Over Law" to include public-utility vehicles. The current law requires drivers to reduce their speed to that of a "reasonable and safe speed for road conditions" when they spot an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on the side of the highway. The current law applies to fire trucks, police vehicles, ambulances, disaster vehicles and highway maintenance vehicles.

SHARK FINS (H 4089) -- The House gave initial approval to a bill banning the possession and sale of shark fins in the Bay State. Shark finning is the practice of cutting off the fins of sharks and then throwing them back into the ocean to die. The bill is being spearheaded by Sean Lesniak, a nine-year-old boy from Lowell.

Supporters said it is outrageous and a shame that this is all done merely to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy.

CHANGES IN ELECTION LAWS (H 4207) -- Gov. Patrick signed into law a bill making changes in the state's election laws. Key provisions allow online voter registration; 16- and 17-year-olds to "pre-register" to vote and automatically be qualified to vote upon turning 18; and early voting beginning 10 business days before any primary or general election and ending two days before the election.