December 25, 2016

On Beacon Hill: State House nativity display divine for crusading lawmaker

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Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Rep. James Lyons celebrates the setup of a nativity scene at the State House.

From State House News Service

ON THE AGENDA

  • Away in a manger, a state rep gets his way
  • Baker sees revenue, jobs in revitalizing state-owned parcels
  • State auditor not counting on smooth legal pot transition

TOP OF THE HILL

State Rep. Lyons revels in Great Hall nativity display

BOSTON — Rep. Jim Lyons got a Christmas surprise last week, in the form of a green light to host a nativity scene display in the State House.

Actually, the Andover Republican was surprised twice — first, in November, when he was told he couldn’t put up a nativity on the State House lawn. Then, last Friday, he got word the Bureau of the State House had approved his application for a display inside the building after all.

The effort grew into a matter of “religious liberty, freedom of expression, First Amendment, all kinds of things tied into one,” Lyons said.

“That wasn’t where I was going at the beginning,” he said. “I was simply going, can we put up a nativity scene? I thought the answer would be — to be honest with you — yes.”

Lyons said his request for an outdoor nativity was denied because religious displays are not allowed. He then asked to put the nativity scene up inside and reached out to lawyers at the Thomas More Society, who said they would take the matter to court if permission was not granted.

Bureau of the State House policies state “only official state functions” are allowed on the State House grounds or exterior spaces.

The society said it had secured permission for nativity displays in capitol buildings in states including Illinois, Georgia, Mississippi, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Missouri and Rhode Island.

The display went up in the Great Hall Thursday morning, Dec. 22, consisting of figures provided by the American Nativity Scene Committee, a kneeler Lyons’ wife Bernadette borrowed from a friend, and evergreen branches from the Christmas trees Lyons sells at his family’s floral and ice cream shop.

“Our message today is that this is about what Christmas has always been, to us as Christians and I think to a lot of non-Christians also,” Lyons said. “This is about that message, the message of love, hope and joy.”

Lyons said he wants to make the nativity display an annual event and hopes to make the creche available for public viewing for a longer period of time — it was scheduled to be up for three hours Thursday — in the future.

That plan caught the attention of the Boston Atheists, an organization that installed its own secular banner on the Boston Common Thursday, with the message, “Joy to the world! This holiday season take care of yourself, of each other & of the world.”

“If the good Representative feels he must pursue a similar action next year, we’ll not oppose him with anything so divisive as a lawsuit,” the group’s officers said in a statement. “Instead, we’ll look to him to support our organization’s efforts to place a celebratory statue of the Satanic Baphomet in the State House in the same week, if even for a single day.

“The values represented by Baphomet are ones we can ALL celebrate, whatever our philosophical views: the importance of pluralism; the importance of rationalism; and the ever-present need for there to be always in society persons with the courage to speak truth to power, including and perhaps especially in the form of blasphemy.”

— Katie Lannan

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Rep. Lyons on bringing a manger to the State House

IN THE NEWS

Baker sees revenue, jobs in revitalizing state-owned parcels

In early 2017, the Baker administration will seek proposals to develop 250 acres in Monson for industrial, agricultural, commercial or residential use.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans to conclude lease negotiations with a “large local employer” in Quincy to turn space underneath a former state-owned bridge into employee parking and to solicit ideas for a mixed-use development on six acres of land on West Boylston Street in Boston.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

Two armories in New Bedford and Lynn are also on the selling block.

All of these projects are part of the Baker administration’s “Open for Business” initiative set up to find the “highest and best use” for underutilized, and in some cases empty, parcels of state-owned land to generate revenue and advance housing and economic development goals, according to the governor.

Gov. Charlie Baker recounted how the initiative, launched in October 2015, started “as an accident” stemming from his time on the campaign trail in 2014 when people in various communities would point to state lots that were home to little more than “burnt out automobiles and empty beer cans” and ask what would happen to the land.

“It’s translated into about 80 projects that are currently underway in about 40 or 50 communities around the commonwealth with the potential, I think over time, to put a lot more unused, non-revenue-generating, in some cases downright eyesores in neighborhoods and communities to work on behalf of the people of Massachusetts,” Baker said.

The administration said more than 85 projects have been started in 41 cities and towns covering over 570 acres. From the 22 sites sold, leased or put under agreement, Baker’s team said the state will eventually generate $413 million in revenue and create 260 new jobs and 1,556 units of housing, including 94 low-income or workforce units.

— Matt Murphy

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

State Auditor Suzanne Bump

Bump says Legislature has much work to do on legal marijuana law with ‘lots of holes’

Beacon Hill has been sort of paralyzed on the issue of marijuana legalization in the six weeks since voters passed the landmark law, which is now known as Chapter 334.

The possession, use and home-growing aspects of the law took effect Dec. 15, but the machinery of government has been slow to start working toward creation of what’s expected to become a significant regulatory apparatus.

To Auditor Suzanne Bump, that signifies a fair amount of work to be accomplished sooner rather than later. During an interview on Boston Herald Radio Dec. 21 Bump took a dim view of the law and suggested that its supporters might not have voted for it if they had paused to read its details.

“This is a very thorny issue and there are lots of questions that still have to be resolved,” Bump said. “I continue to maintain that a very small percentage of people who voted for this question actually read the question. They voted for the idea of legalizing pot. I don’t think they really spent any time thinking about whether the structure that would allow that to happen was effectively designed in this ballot initiative. I think if they did then they might not have voted for it.

“They voted for an idea when really they were voting for a law that has a lot of holes. It doesn’t reconcile all of the moving parts on this around law enforcement and the like,” she said. “And so the Legislature does have an obligation to look at this and make a rational system. As they say, the genie’s out of the bottle and how you try to figure out how to impose some system on that is going to be a really tricky thing and I think they’re going to have to do it quickly.”

The coming debate should be especially interesting, since so few lawmakers publicly supported the ballot law. Many openly opposed Chapter 334 and now they have an opportunity to reshape it.

— Michael P. Norton

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