State House Roundup: Making The Sausage

Domestic workers may wind up as the beneficiaries of the bicameral bickering around how to pass a minimum wage increase and unemployment insurance reforms in Massachusetts.

Well, them, or the Democrats standing for election. If the legislative effort doesn't pass by July 31 candidates would likely share space on the November ballot with a voter referendum activists are pushing to increase the minimum hourly wage. With a governor and Democratic majorities in both branches that appear solidly in favor of a higher wage floor, the initiative would seem like a slam dunk. But party leaders, for reasons that are open for speculation, are having trouble getting the ball past half court.

Back to the domestic workers. Having missed by one day a biennial legislative deadline to pass the House's own version of a minimum wage extension and unemployment insurance reform, and seeing an attempted extension tied up by the Senate, House Chairman of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development Tom Conroy chose to do what scores of chairmen before him have in similar situations. They found another bill to tack their bill on, one that had already cleared committee on time: An Act Establishing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

The bill provides statutory protection against discrimination and harassment and gives domestic workers job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child. After a significant redraft by the House Committee on Ways and Means, the bill also provides a minimum hourly wage of $10.50 per hour by July 1, 2016, along with sundry UI reforms that business and labor lobbyists are trying to comprehend.

Why didn't the committee simply redraft the Senate-approved minimum wage bill - $11 per hour by Jan. 1, 2016, with future increases linked to cost of living - which was sent to House Ways and Means last November? Or the Senate UI bill, which reached the same committee in early February?

"I think it's important that the House follows the House rules and the House processes in a way that all the House members are comfortable with. The process issue should not be getting in the way of politics here. From our perspective, we reported this bill out of the House," Conroy told reporters during an impromptu visit to the State House press gallery Tuesday afternoon. A spokesman later said Conroy meant politics should not get in the way of process. Conroy continued, "The Senate is the one that's been trying to block this and throw in dilatory tactics to slow this whole process down."

Au contraire, said Senate President Therese Murray, who would prefer the House simply make amendments to the Senate's version of the bill rather than starting afresh.

"We have Senate rules that allow members if they don't like the bill to lay it on the table and to delay action, to have it printed in the calendar, to add amendments. If you remember the gaming debate, it took us eight weeks," Murray said. She said, "If they took up either one of those and replaced it with their bill and voted on it then that could come up here and we could go immediately to conference."

Conroy said the House needed more time to craft the legislation because they were waiting on data from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. Both he and Speaker Robert DeLeo have called for passage of minimum wage legislation as well as UI reforms. But the tack they are taking had Senate leaders wondering why the House doesn't appear to want to get a bill to conference more quickly.

Another inter-chamber, intra-committee dispute - this one over whether to increase options for charter schools in mostly low-income urban districts - featured a House chair essentially circumventing her own committee and managing to move the issue up a notch, to the House Ways and Means Committee.

After the clock ran out with no approval on a charter-cap-lifting bill from the Education Committee, House Chairwoman Alice Peisch took the loss, and took the bill to a lightly-attended informal session where the few colleagues who showed up rubber-stamped her new bill and sent it to Ways and Means.

In that context, it's understandable that Gov. Deval Patrick, still waiting for a compounding pharmacy regulation bill, used a declaration of emergency to grant the Department of Public Health additional powers to combat substance abuse. And Attorney General Martha Coakley chose a court injunction to keep open the emergency room at North Adams Regional Hospital.

Imagine the wait for those to be enacted by both branches.

Of course it's not clear what legislative solution there might be to stop the spread of opiate addiction and heroin overdoses or to prevent closure of the north Berkshires hospital.

It wasn't long ago that the House and Senate scrambled in unison to statutorily ban surreptitious up-skirt photography, after the highest court ruled there was no such prohibition on the books. From the SJC's decision to Patrick's signature, it took about 48 hours, from a Wednesday morning until Friday morning.

The denizens of the northwestern corner of the state learned Tuesday, about the same time as DPH, that the 129-year-old North Adams Regional Hospital and three medical practices owned by Northern Berkshire Healthcare planned to close Friday morning. That would mean a drive to Pittsfield or Vermont for Williamstown residents experiencing chest pains. Not a good situation.

A temporary injunction won by Coakley, who grew up in North Adams, kept emergency services in operation. The hospital didn't provide the required 90-day notice, the AG's office said in a press release.

The hospital closure plans alarmed affected residents and workers in the area while on Beacon Hill, lawmakers are no doubt wondering whether warnings about the ability of community hospitals to survive in an era of consolidation might mean their community could be the next North Adams.

Mark Fisher might be seeking his own injunction over the next few days. A little-known, longshot Tea Party Republican, Fisher late Saturday afternoon found himself mere decimal points away from the 15-percent support he needed to share the September ballot with gubernatorial frontrunner Charlie Baker after delegates' votes were counted at the Republican convention in the Agganis Arena.

A strong performer in head-to-head polls with the Democratic contenders, Baker would appear poised to avoid the potential pitfalls of a primary. But Fisher has already seized a share the spotlight with a ballot-access court battle, assuming the Shrewsbury manufacturer can muster the necessary funds to lawyer up.

Perhaps Fisher's counsel could borrow from the recent rhetoric used by the Democrats beefing over charter schools and minimum wage bills, where "obfuscatory" and "obstinacy" were watchwords.

"I'm sad that obstinacy and polarized rhetoric stood in the way of compromise and progress," said Senate Chairwoman of the Education Committee Sonia Chang-Diaz, after the committee declined to pass a compromise that would increase the charter caps and provide full funding of the charter reimbursement program for local school districts.

There were examples of agreement in the General Court this past week. Legislation banning the shackling of pregnant prisoners - except in cases of flight risk or safety concerns - cleared the House Wednesday after passing the Senate last week. Negotiators reconciling House and Senate bills providing new benefits for veterans filed a finalized version last week after months of negotiations, and the two branches sent the VALOR Act II to the governor's desk Thursday. Both bills could be law soon.

Those hoping for a future victory on legislation granting access to sex-segregated public facilities to individuals based on their gender identity might start scouting out another lawmaker to carry the issue.

Rep. Carl Sciortino, who failed to win an open Congressional seat last year, announced he would step down to run the AIDS Action Committee. The Medford Democrat has championed transgender rights and protections for abortion clinics and drew a national buzz with an ad featuring his Tea Party father Carl Sciortino Sr. - it ended "I still love you, dad" "Me too, son." Sciortino also announced he has been living with HIV, and he will be the first person with the virus to lead the AIDS advocacy group since its founding in 1982.

Treasurer Steven Grossman, who along with Coakley is among five Democrats seeking the governorship, praised Sciortino at a MassEquality forum. Seven of the candidates in attendance - five Democrats and two independents - spoke in support of transgender rights and ways to assist gay people, drawing a stark if mostly unremarked contrast with anti-gay pastor and never-in-a-million-years candidate Scott Lively, who also attended the forum and believes in providing one thing for gay people: "reparative therapy."

While independent Jeff McCormick joked that he deserved a martini for having to sit next to Lively, few would argue that Grossman did not display the real mettle at the forum. After his appearance, which was his second-to-last of the evening, aides disclosed that the avowed ice cream enthusiast had been passing a kidney stone. This disclosure drew Grossman some national media attention. For a candidate lagging in name recognition and in search of in-roads on Coakley's poll dominance, the painful feat couldn't hurt.

In other health care news, the Health Connector with the help of consultant Optum, MassHealth staffers and special assistant Sarah Iselin, has zeroed out the backlog of paper applications and given those seeking unsubsidized coverage another two weeks to sign up with a plan. That allows the Connector to turn its attention toward determining eligibility and transitioning people receiving temporary Medicaid coverage into more permanent plans. It's not what was envisioned but it's life at the Connector, an agency muddling through the expensive pain inflicted by a costly website that doesn't work correctly.

The whirligig of life delivers occasional reminders of how quickly it can be snapped away, and how the turmoil and hijinks of politics can recede in import as mortality and heroism become the chief actors.

So it was that a vicious March wind on Thursday, which whipped the Charles into whitecaps, fanned a deadly fire in the Back Bay and turned the state's eyes to a burning four-story brownstone.

The townhouse dwellers of the Boston neighborhood were closing in on the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that shook the city's core, and had just learned the circumstances around the FBI's shooting of an associate of one of the bombers, when fire struck 298 Beacon Street.

The nine-alarm blaze claimed the lives of Boston Fire Department Lt. Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy, who were quickly trapped in the basement where the fire originated.

"We lost two heroes here today. It makes me proud to be mayor of the city of Boston after watching the way the men and women of the Boston Fire Department worked today," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at a Thursday night press conference. "These two heroes ran into a burning building, got people out of the building."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate are more firmly locked in a dispute over how to pass a minimum wage increase, which leaders of both chambers say they support. In the House, domestic workers stand to clean up.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The Senate has been the obfuscatory body, not us." - Rep. Tom Conroy said as House leaders tried to move a minimum wage bill closer to the floor after the Senate passed its own wage floor hike in 2013.


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