November 26, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Birds of a feather?

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Lower speed limits in highway work zones are just suggestions — for now, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at a press conference Tuesday. "You can only be ticketed if you're actually going faster than the underlying speed limit for the road," she said. Gov. Charlie Baker announced he is filing a bill to allow enforcement of the lower limits.

Recap and analysis of the week in local, state and federal government from State House News Service and Sun research.

BOSTON — An estimated 51 million Americans were projected to travel more than 50 miles to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

A fair number of those hit the Massachusetts highways newly confident, if they didn’t know before, that if they could escape the traffic for just a few miles those reduced speed limits posted in work zones along the route were merely “suggestions” and nothing that could legally stop them from getting to their turkey faster.

Gov. Charlie Baker made that point clear while standing in front a giant bank of monitors showing pockets of traffic starting to form Tuesday afternoon as he announced a package of highway safety initiatives he hopes legislative leaders will move to their front burner.

The ability to legally enforce reduced speed limits in work zones was one. But it wasn’t the talker.

Just this past February, Baker was on the radio when he said he thought texting while driving was the real danger on the roads. “I’m not sure I believe that the talking thing is,” he explained.

The governor, however, is no longer willing to take the risk that he could have been right, citing the volume of fatal car crashes that can be attributed to distracted driving and advances in technology and pricing that have made hands-free devices more accessible than ever. Those free hands, advocates hope, can stay gripped to steering wheels.

Baker called on the Legislature to deliver to his desk a bill before next summer that would make Massachusetts the sixteenth state to ban the handheld use of cellphones while driving. (Every other state in New England, except Maine, and New York have already done so.) And just like that, a driving safety bill climbed up the ladder of issues to watch for in 2018.

The governor’s new point of view changes some of the Beacon Hill politics over the long-filed bill, ratcheting up pressure on the House.

“I’m very pleased to see his comments,” Sen. Mark Montigny told the News Service. “But the only thing that should change the political dynamic is 15 years of death and destruction on the highways.”

Montigny, of New Bedford, still remembers vividly having to settle in 2010 for a ban on texting while driving. The Legislature wasn’t ready then to go all the way, and Montigny almost voted against his own bill because, as police would later complain, he believed the texting ban to be virtually unenforceable if people would still be allowed to handle their devices to phone a friend.

In the Senate, a hands-free bill already won approval in June, and because of Baker, Montigny has been imbued with new hope. “I’m glad the governor’s on board,” he said.

The pressure now shifts to the House as the lone holdout on a topic that from an experiential standpoint resonates with most voters/drivers. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he would be speaking with his Transportation Committee Chair Rep. William Straus in the “near future” about how to proceed.

In the meantime, Baker had bills sitting on his desk that merited his attention, and the signing spree started Monday with an elaborately staged ceremony to make the contraception “ACCESS” bill law.

“This is a great day in the commonwealth of Mass.,” the governor declared from a podium set up in the rarely used State House library, flanked by leaders of the House and Senate, Attorney General Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, the head of Planned Parenthood and more.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harriette L. Chandler, right, looked on as Gov. Charlie Baker signed the ACCESS bill into law last week.

Don’t be surprised if this image makes it into campaign literature next year, the governor standing front and center as the state’s almost exclusively Democratic power brokers, plus the governor, delivered a message to President Trump’s Washington that birth control would remain free and covered in Massachusetts no matter what happens to Obamacare.

This is shaping up as a fascinating election year — Baker trying hard to stay in good graces of State House Democrats, his opponents trying just as hard to Velcro him to Washington Republicans.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Economy, State Police scandal keep Worcester in spotlight
  • Warren on GOP tax plan, Healey raps Trump on Haiti/TPS
  • AG finds Baker opioid bill lacking
  • Governor signs overhaul of English language learning


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