State House Roundup: Raise Your Right Hand

After a weekend of politicking and karaoke in Worcester, legislative leaders put their heads down this week as a tempest began to swirl over at the federal courthouse in Boston, threatening to further chum the waters of the end-of-session, lawmaking frenzy.

But if the sharks are circling, at least their fins will be protected under a bill that has now cleared both the House and Senate making possession or sale of shark fins illegal in Massachusetts. But we digress.

The three surviving Democratic candidates for governor stormed out of the DCU Center and onto the campaign trail with Treasurer Steven Grossman sharpening his knives and Don Berwick looking to build his name recognition. But if either were hoping to see a post-convention bounce in the polls, it didn’t happen.

A Boston Globe poll taken over three days after the convention found Attorney General Martha Coakley continuing to lead Grossman by 33 points, with a seven-point margin of error. The poll had Coakley at 52 percent, Grossman at 19 percent, and Berwick at 8 percent.

While lawmakers are divided over their choice for governor – Sens. Dan Wolf and Kenneth Donnelly were the latest to join team Berwick this week – they are now united over an issue that has eluded compromise for years.

Maybe it’s the new Pope, or the decision to drop some of the more controversial elements of the proposal. But the House and Senate whisked a bill to the edge of the Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk that would extend the statute of limitation for victims of child sex abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or the institutions that turned a blind eye until they turn 53, up from age 21.

While final perfunctory votes are still required in each branch for that bill, Patrick was in receipt this week of legislation to raise the minimum wage from $8 an hour to a nation-leading $11 an hour by January 2017. Some business groups are less than thrilled with the final outcome, particularly because they don’t think the accompanying unemployment insurance reforms go far enough to save small businesses money as they see their payroll expenses grow.

“This is simply bad legislation, it is bad for the economy and it is bad for the people you claim you are interested in helping,” Andover Republican Rep. Jim Lyons scolded Democrats and the six House Republicans who voted for the bill, who are probably more than happy to tell their blue-collar constituents that they just voted to give them a raise, and, oh yeah, don’t forget to vote in November.

The Election Laws Committee gave its blessing to a bill to force super PACs to disclose the sources of their funding within seven days of making independent expenditures. Though the disclosure bill was expected this session, what came as a bit of a surprise was a clause that would increase the maximum individual donation to a candidate from $500 to $1,000 starting in January.

Though candidates on the ballot this fall won’t be able to take advantage, committee co-chair Sen. Barry Finegold, a candidate for treasurer, said, “If you talk to anyone we all spend way too much time trying to raise money and that's not good for democracy. I think the lower limits does not help that situation.” The limits haven’t been touched in 20 years when, ironically, they were lowered from $1,000 to $500. House Speaker Robert DeLeo advised members on Friday to be prepared to vote on the bill next Wednesday.

A compromise between House and Senate negotiators was also reached regarding welfare reform legislation passed way back in 2013, but the Senate agreed to Sen. Robert Hedlund’s request to wait until next week to vote on the bill, which Hedlund says “weaker” than the either of the original two bills.

While the chains were greased this week on the legislative assembly line, the end of the session – 41 days and counting – could get more intriguing and uncomfortable for Democrats as a parade of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team is expected to march from the comfy confines on the capitol to the witness booth to testify in the ongoing probation trial.

Prosecutors seeking to prove that former probation department commissioner John O’Brien and two of his deputies oversaw a rigged hiring scheme intended to curry favor with Beacon Hill pols intend to call a half dozen current lawmakers to the stand in the coming week as the focus of the trial shifts to whether DeLeo was given jobs by O’Brien only to dole them out for votes in his quest for the speakership.

Rep. Ann Gobi, who is running for Senate this year, testified that DeLeo did offer to let her recommend a probation job candidate in the summer of 2008, but said there were no strings attached. In fact, Gobi claimed she did not even know DeLeo would be running for speaker until much later that year, despite voluminous press accounts of the brewing battle between the Ways and Means chair and then Majority Leader John Rogers.

DeLeo’s scorned former budget chief Charles Murphy, who is no longer in the House, is expected to testify that the speaker once told him “hands off” the probation department budget in the midst of a recession when bottom lines across government were being slashed. DeLeo would not confirm nor deny he ever said those words, falling back on a position he’s repeated since the investigation began - asserting he’s been cleared of wrongdoing by the U.S. attorney.

As legislators wait to see if the Supreme Court strikes down the state’s 35-foot buffer zone law to protect patrons of family planning clinics, House leaders produced a response this week to another state and federal court ruling that found life sentences for juveniles convicted of first degree murder to be unconstitutional.

The House voted 127-16 in favor a new sentencing guidelines that would make juveniles convicted of a first-degree felony murder eligible for parole after serving prison sentences of 20 to 25 years, while those convicted of premeditated murder, with malice or “extreme cruelty,” would serve sentences between 25 to 30 years before they are parole eligible.

Lots of legislation may be on the move on Beacon Hill, but organizers behind ballot initiatives that have failed to gain traction among elected officials began to turn in their final signatures to bring their issues to the voters this fall.

The one issue besides the minimum wage that lawmakers have tried to compromise on – an expansion of the bottle redemption law to include water and sports drinks – is at an “impasse,” according to Sen. Benjamin Downing, though it remains the subject of budget negotiations.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The pace is beginning to pick up on Beacon Hill with the end of session nearing and some uncomfortable questions looming for Beacon Hill’s House leadership.


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