November 19, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Around the turn they come

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

LAST-MINUTE LOBBYING: Susan Tordella of Ayer, dressed as the "carceral monster" to represent incarceration, lobbied Rep. David DeCoste, R-Norwell, and other House members Tuesday with a Unitarian Universalist task force to support the criminal justice reform bill.

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

BOSTON — Horse racing in Massachusetts has been on the decline for many years now, but horse trading is alive and well on Beacon Hill.

The Legislature came down the homestretch last week with blinders on, looking to finish what it could before the holiday recess, while Gov. Charlie Baker had his eye on next year – which happens to be his re-election year – as he filed new legislation and took executive action to ramp up the fight against opioid addiction.

House and Senate lawmakers were too preoccupied with their own business to get too deep into the opioid debate, but it was never far from mind as criminal justice reform took center stage in the House.

House leaders set aside two days to debate the justice bill prepared by state Reps. Claire Cronin, D-Brockton, and Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Jamaica Plain, but Monday’s first day featured more idling than engine revving as trade-offs were being hashed out for hours behind the closed doors of the speaker’s office.

“It’s not a pretty process,” House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, mused outside the House chamber.

Pretty or not, the bill got done, and justice reform advocates were pleasantly surprised after months of hand-wringing and worrying that the House would try narrow the focus of the legislation and only tip-toe into the waters of the some of the more controversial topics.

The final bill does away with mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, restricts the use of solitary confinement, allows for the expungement of juvenile records, and makes other reforms to bail and felony larceny statutes. Progressives may not have gotten everything they wanted, but felt listened to and believe there’s always a chance to make further gains as negotiations begin with the Senate.

Hardline crime-and-punishment types were also left wanting after a passionate debate over Gov. Baker’s proposal to make drug dealers whose products lead to death eligible for a sentence of life in prison.

Republicans and Democrats argued that a strong message needed to be sent to those peddling death on the streets, but Reps. David Linsky, D-Natick, and Chris Markey, D-Dartmouth, two former prosecutors speaking for the side that prevailed, said even their shared disgust with those enabling addiction couldn’t convince them that such a punishment would pass legal muster.

As the debate was going on in the House, Baker called a press conference to roll out the next phase of his administration’s fight against opioid abuse and addiction.

With proposed law changes and executive actions designed to improve access to treatment and educate young people on the dangers of opioids, Baker said Massachusetts is far from declaring “mission accomplished” despite a reduction in overdose deaths over the past six months.

Charlie Baker

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

The overdose-reversing drug Narcan has played a role in holding down the death toll and the governor, among other ideas, pitched making it available over the counter. He also brought back a revised version of his controversial proposal to involuntarily hold patients for 72 hours in emergency rooms if they show signs of addiction and being a danger to themselves.

The retooled proposal would instead allow medical clinicians to have patients involuntarily transferred to treatment centers, instead of kept in emergency rooms, for up to 72 hours if they are considered a threat to themselves or others. After 72 hours, medical personnel would be able to petition the courts to keep the patient longer.

“If you have this opportunity to engage somebody, you should take advantage of it,” Baker said.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • It’s the voters’ turn to take the initiative
  • McGovern on Trump’s new scandal, Baker on opioids
  • Candidate Warren calls for independent look into arrest report scandal
  • Watch: Baker on swearing in new State Police top cop
  • ‘Privilege’ comment rankles gun-rights advocates

LOOKING AHEAD

Voters’ turn to take initiative on ballot questions

Now that state legislators are back on break, the other lawmakers in Massachusetts — the voters — are poised to be heard again.

Ballot question proponents who hope to put their proposals before voters a year from now face a Wednesday deadline to submit the bulk of the signatures they’ll need to qualify.  Local registrars will review the submissions and each campaign needs at least 64,750 certified signatures to stay alive, with no more than one-quarter of the signatures coming from any one county.

Supporters of a $15 minimum wage, a sales tax rate reduction, a paid family and medical leave program, and nurse staffing requirements in hospitals are among the ballot campaigns in the works.

The House and Senate have only informal sessions scheduled for the rest of the year, but it’s possible this week that a conference committee of three lawmakers from each branch will be appointed to begin negotiations on competing criminal justice reform packages.

Bill signings are also a possibility, although there’s some uncertainty about how Baker will look upon bilingual education legislation and a home care bill that he’s previously expressed reservations about.

The House and Senate plan to hold light sessions on Monday and Wednesday, and Gov. Baker is reviewing bills the Legislature sent to his desk this week.

Those bills include contraceptive coverage legislation (H 4009), a bill giving educators more flexibility in teaching English language learners (H 4032), legislation establishing a home care registry bill (H 3821), a bill targeting handicapped parking placard abuse (S 2178), and legislation authorizing borrowing to pay for a new Chelsea Soldiers Home and broadband expansion in rural areas (H 4015).

A LITTLE BIRDIE

McGovern on Trump Ocean Club scandal

Baker unveils proposals to fight opioid epidemic

NOTED

Guv candidate Warren calls for independent look into State Police report scandal

With new State Police Superintendent Kerry Gilpin embarking on an investigation into the editing of the arrest report of a judge’s daughter, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren on Thursday said there should be an independent probe, the findings of which should be made public.

State House News Service

Setti Warren

Gilpin was sworn in Wednesday as the new superintendent of the 2,100-member State Police force following the abrupt retirement of Col. Richard McKeon and his top deputy. McKeon retired after Gov. Baker announced he was reviewing the colonel’s decision to order a trooper to remove potentially embarrassing details from the arrest report of Alli Bibaud, the daughter of Dudley District Court Judge Timothy Bibaud.

“The public has a right to know if the State Police received orders from the highest levels of government to alter an arrest record for political reasons. Gov. Baker’s instinct is to sweep this scandal under the carpet with a couple of resignations and alleged secret investigation,” Warren, the mayor of Newton, said in a statement.

Baker has said he believes McKeon was wrong to order the report revisions, but his office has said there will be no public report summarizing the administration’s findings. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has said she is investigating the matter.

“Every person in the Commonwealth is equal under the law and should be treated equally by law enforcement. The notion that the State Police would provide preferential treatment to the daughter of a politically connected judge is enough to shake the public’s confidence in our system,” Warren said.

“Every aspect of this affair should be examined by an impartial and independent investigation, and the results of that investigation should be made public,” he said.

— Matt Murphy

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Watch: Baker on swearing in new state top cop

IN THE NEWS

‘Privilege’ comment rankles gun-rights advocates; Moore bill considered

Allowing the use of silencers and the attorney general’s authority to regulate firearms were hot topics at a Public Safety Committee hearing Thursday that saw lawmakers and gun-rights advocates tangle over the Second Amendment.

More than 100 people piled into a State House hearing room for the hearing on more than 50 bills dealing with firearms. Gun-control activists congregated on one side of the room, many wearing orange T-shirts with “Moms Demand Action” or “Stop Gun Violence” on them. The other side of the room featured gun-rights advocates, some of whom wore shirts bearing various slogans.

“We have some folks in this room who believe it is a privilege and we have some folks in this room who believe it is a constitutional right” to own a firearm, National Rifle Association spokesman John Hohenwarter said. “I think that’s where the fight lies.”

Hohenwarter and other gun-rights supporters keyed in on a statement Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, made at the hearing as she was testifying in support of various gun-control measures and against bills she said would erode Massachusetts’ status as the state with the lowest rate of gun deaths.

“It is a privilege that we allow individuals to hold onto something that causes harm and death,” Decker said. “It is a privilege to have a car license, it is a privilege to have a gun license.”

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said Decker’s comment illustrated frustrations lawful gun owners feel in Massachusetts.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

“It is a privilege to have a car license, it is a privilege to have a gun license,” state Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, said at a hearing Thursday.

“One of the problems that we face here in Massachusetts is that the Second Amendment is barely recognized in the state as a whole, and certainly not as a civil right. I could not have asked for a better witness to that than the previous legislator that actually described our civil rights as a ‘privilege,’ ” Wallace said. “I am aghast that an elected official would actually say that … but that’s not unusual.”

One issue that elicited testimony both in favor and in opposition on Thursday was removing the state ban on suppressors, or silencers, which attach to the barrel of a gun and reduce the sound of a bullet being fired.

Sen. Michael Moore, the co-chairperson of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, and Sen. Donald Humason each filed bills (S 1340/S 1317) to remove the ban on the use of suppressors. Massachusetts is one of 10 states that bans gun suppressors for hunting and one of eight states that bans them from consumers.

“I see them as a tool to continue firearm safety education without having to damage your ears,” Amanda Deveno, a firearm safety instructor and GOAL member, told the committee. “It also makes it easier for me as an instructor on the line to communicate properly with my students.”

Deveno’s argument did not go over well with John Rosenthal, the founder of the nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence.

“Don’t be fooled by thinking that somehow the silencer bill is a hearing protection act. It is not,” he said. “I can tell you as a gun owner who has hunted, nobody hunts or shoots at a range without hearing protection. It’s a fraud being played on you guys and across the country.”

— Colin A. Young

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