Lawmakers prepare flurry of bills for deadline
Preserving education. Reforming of the criminal offender information system. Protecting local aid to cities and towns.
Those are some of the issues facing lawmakers as they prepare to kick off another two-year session. And those are just the ones that are personal to them. Looming large are changes to the state's transportation infrastructure, and pension and ethics reforms.
Keeping safe local aid - which cities and towns depend on from the state to pay for teachers, firefighters and police - is a top priority for most, including the Dorchester legislators.
"I think just as importantly, we need to be sure we're fighting to sustain local aid," said state Sen. Jack Hart.
The House and Senate are debating this week whether to give Gov. Deval Patrick the authority to cut deeper into accounts such as local aid, which escaped cuts in October. The cuts in local aid could total over $500 million. The revised fiscal 2009 revenue estimate is nearly $2 billion lower than the estimate used to build the $28.2 billion budget that Patrick signed in July.
Rep. Willie Mae Allen said keeping money for policemen, particularly as crime rates have dipped, is a priority.
"We want to make sure this continues to decrease," she said, crediting Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and police officers at the Area B-3 station in her district. "That's my number one priority. Level funding, at least."
Hart said he would also be focusing on the completion of Ashmont MBTA station and a number of other construction projects. Those include seeing through construction of a park at the former site of a paper mill in Port Norfolk, renovation of several Dorchester parks, and reconstructing parts of Columbia Road and Gallivan Boulevard.
Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry is expected to carry the governor's legislation to overhaul the state's criminal offender records (CORI) system in the House. Among other bills, she is filing one that would create a "temporary workers' right to know."
"There are some companies out there, they'll pick up employees for a day or a week and the folks may not know where they're working," Forry said. "This is a simple form that will let the worker know, where you're going to work, this is what you're going to do."
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has also appointed Forry, the House vice chair of the Joint Committee on Public Service, to a special committee on pension reform. This week, Forry and her House colleague Rep. Jay Kaufman began circulating a proposal to limit to 10 percent the total salary increase allowed in calculating an employee's pension. The bill would also allow employees who leave the system before retiring to collect interest on their contributions and would eliminate a 2 percent surcharge on employees earning over $30,000 a year.
Forry's proposed bill would also eliminate two contentious policies: one that allows public employees to count a single day as an entire year of service and another that allows elected officials to claim a higher pension if they fail to be re-nominated or re-elected.
Rep. Marty Walsh, who is also on the special pension reform committee, said he plans to file a "diversion bill" for low-level drug offenders as a way to steer them into treatment. He also said he would be filing a bill protecting tenants from foreclosure.
Walsh said he would also be filing changes to how the House operates, which he announced in November with Rep. John Quinn (D-Dartmouth). Those rules, which he called a "work in progress," set a six-year term limit on the speaker's job, make public the meetings of the House Ethics Committee, and increase penalties for illegal lobbying.
Rep. Marie St. Fleur, vice chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, was appointed to a special committee on ethics.
St. Fleur said she would focus on recidivism and stopping people from heading back into jail.
"We can't continue to warehouse them," she said, instead calling for ways to keep them "active and contributing members" of society.
Rep. Brian Wallace said he would be filing bills relating to substance abuse and helping the burgeoning film industry, which has shot an increasing number of movies in Massachusetts after lawmakers passed tax credits for film studios.
Wallace said he was undecided over whether he would be filing any legislation dealing with casinos. Patrick filed a bill legalizing gambling and establishing three casinos, but it died overwhelmingly in the House as DiMasi fought to defeat the legislation.
At press time, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is taking over for former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, was still working on her agenda. Rep. Gloria Fox, whom DiMasi appointed to a special committee on rules, did not return a phone call seeking comment.