State House Roundup: Black And White

Occasionally, Beacon Hill’s petty personality politics – with recalcitrant chairmen shunted from power over perceived slights or rebellious rank-and-filers neutered by a leadership that can (and often does) dictate which liquor license bills go where – smash headfirst into the inescapably real.

Massachusetts residents, it turns out, are dying from prescription drug abuse at a faster clip than they are in car crashes, procuring Vicodin or OxyContin from out-of-state “pill mills” or pilfering the medicine cabinets of family and friends to simulate heroin highs under the guise of modern medicine.

It was a sobering statistic lobbed Thursday by Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston) who also described a 3,000 percent increase in accidental deaths by prescription drugs between 1984 and 2004, with users moving away from heroin and toward increasingly powerful and toxic pharmaceuticals.

To confront that reality, the Senate passed legislation requiring tighter regulation on the way prescriptions are monitored in the Bay State, and members launched rare broadsides against other states where they argued prescription drugs are trafficked with impunity.

“We know that Florida is a major pill mill, and in fact, the state of Florida is starting to crack down on those pain clinics that were on every corner, but we know people take buses down there and pick up the drugs and bring them here and sell them,” Senate President Therese Murray said Tuesday, a week after she declared selling drugs is akin to “selling death.”

During debate on the Senate’s bill, former substance abuse committee co-chair Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) took aim at New Hampshire, which she said lacks a prescription monitoring program, potentially luring Massachusetts residents to go “prescription shopping.”

The debate was an appropriately somber climax to a week bookended by high-profile funerals – one for former Boston Mayor Kevin White, whose passing ground government to a halt on Wednesday; another scheduled this weekend for longtime Governor’s Councilor Kelly Timilty, who died at 49 on Tuesday.

It was largely a lost week for the House, which canceled its one planned formal session to honor Mayor White and made little in the way of policy progress. Speaker Robert DeLeo spent part of Thursday on camera explaining that a fresh round of indictments targeting lawmakers could prove a “setback” for a Legislature that seems permanently on the defensive and scrambling to salvage a veneer of public trust.

Although the House was dormant, its Judiciary Committee chairman was not in the district Friday morning. Instead, he was in a State House conference room livening up negotiations with the Senate in an attempt to broker a compromise on legislation to send habitual felons to prison without parole. Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) said he could engineer the passage of a bill in the House that also includes a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders – a provision adopted by the Senate in November but eschewed by the House – but only if the Senate forsakes an array of miscellaneous proposals affecting wiretapping, good time credits and mandatory post-release supervision. Senate negotiators, despite some initial sniping, appeared open to the compromise.


Of course, the House’s openness to accept a handful of Senate provisions came after one of the House’s three negotiators, Rep. David Linsky, spent the week explaining why a crackdown on habitual offenders – in the pipeline since the Weld administration – would have a microscopic effect on the criminal justice system, netting only five to 10 offenders per year.

“There is a very small group of repeat violent offenders, probably no more than five or 10 a year that come before the courts in Massachusetts, who when they have committed their third violent crime and, having already been to state prison twice, we can't afford as a society to give these people a chance at parole to go out and commit a fourth violent offense,” he said in Wednesday radio interview. “It's a very small group.”

But critics of the bill contend that’s folly, arguing the crackdown will lead to a wave of incarcerations with unpredictable results and that the Legislature should not strip judges of their sentencing discretion.

“I have lived in a house that was shot into twice and burglarized six times. I'm to the right of Mr. Linsky on this law and order stuff. I'm not the Brattle Street high liberal who thinks that all criminals are political prisoners,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers, who joined Linsky on WBUR. "My point is that I think that we can probably achieve the same goals that you've articulated with judges exercising better discretion because the presumption in the removal of judicial discretion is I cannot attain the same result with judges exercising discretion."

STORY OF THE WEEK: A bid to crack down on the abuse of legal drugs coupled with a run at shorter sentences for drug offenders.

SUPER BILL: In the tradition of a Greek classicist, U.S. Rep. William Keating reinvented homerism this week when he used the resources of his taxpayer-funded office to issue a press release with this headline: “KEATING, STAFF GEARING UP FOR SUPER BOWL.” The release was, of course accompanied by Keating clad in a Jerod Mayo jersey, which his office faithfully noted he was wearing under his suit during briefings and meetings in the U.S. House of Representatives. The freshman Congressman also included photos of his staff wearing Patriots gear, with his office dutifully noting that “higher resolution copies” are available upon request.

GROUNDHOG DAY: While lawmakers worried about dodging indictments and MBTA officials fretted about financial turmoil, a certain former Massachusetts governor reclaimed the Republican Party mantle this week, trouncing his next closest opponent in a Florida presidential primary and catapulting himself back into the role of frontrunner. Familiar storylines abounded, with Gov. Mitt Romney in hot pursuit of the Oval Office, prosecutors and Romney researchers sniffing around Beacon Hill, commuters facing a direct assault on their wallets, and a three-strikes bill in the works for decades gaining steam. Romney crushed former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich in the Florida race, winning 46.4 percent of the vote to Gingrich’s 31.9 percent. Romney’s advancement stirred more grumbling than rallying back on the Democrat-controlled hill where he once roamed.

This program aired on February 3, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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