The House on Wednesday voted to prevent the use of inmate labor beyond the borders of Massachusetts over the objections of Republicans who argued that existing law addresses the issue and questioned why it was a priority.
Massachusetts prisons and jails have never sent inmates to work on projects in another state, lawmakers said. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson sparked controversy in January when he proposed sending inmates in his jail to help construct President Donald Trump's proposed Mexican border wall.
"It makes it very clear what can and cannot be done," Rep. Antonio Cabral, the bill's sponsor, told the News Service. He said, "This is really about state money being spent on state programs, and that's really the message."
Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican, said the bill sought to solve a problem that did not exist and that the Legislature should instead be addressing "existing, ongoing, real-life, today problems" that affect cities and towns.
"Quite frankly, I'm somewhat stunned that this has become one of the priority bills to do," he said.
On votes that closely tracked party lines, Democrats defeated two separate bids by Jones to gather more information about out-of-state inmate labor. His attempt to send the bill to the Ways and Means Committee for an analysis of potential cost savings or avoided expenses was rejected 36-113. A Jones amendment creating a commission to study the bill's cost and effectiveness was shot down 38-117.
After close to three hours of debate, the bill (H 3034) passed on a 120-35 vote. Rep. Susannah Whipps of Athol was the only Republican to vote yes, and Reps. Brian Murray of Milford and Jonathan Zlotnik of Gardner were the Democrats who voted no. The bill now moves to the Senate.
Rep. David Vieira, a Falmouth Republican, read aloud a section of state law that allows work release programs "within the commonwealth" and another allowing inmates to provide services for "municipalities within the county," saying those provisions would make it illegal for a sheriff to send inmates beyond state borders.
"This is much ado about nothing," he said. "Our laws already protect it."
Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton countered that the Legislature often takes steps to make things explicit even though they can be implied. She said Hodgson's proposal gives the Legislature a "real reason" to act and "save the step of someone suing that sheriff" if his plan came to be.
Hodgson said in a statement Friday that passing the bill — and another that had been teed up for Wednesday targeting his office before a vote was postponed — would "show once again that personal political agendas are more important than keeping our citizens and legal residents safe."
The House had planned to take up another Cabral bill preventing state money from being used to execute agreements where state and local law enforcement are trained to act as federal immigration agents, but Democratic leaders postponed the vote after members raised a number of unspecified questions about the bill.
Cabral, who also sponsored that bill (H 3033), said its possible some adjustments will be made to the legislation by the Ways and Means Committee, but he would not specualte on how soon it could resurface for debate. "It's probaby good that it's not done in the same session so we don't mix the issues," Cabral said.
Cabral said the decision to hold the bill was made before House Democrats caucused on Wednesday, and he was not clear on the specific questions raised by members prompting the delay. "I'm sure they have questions because there is a lot of misinformation and alternative facts. It has nothing to do, as the opponents would have you believe, with sanctuary cities," Cabral said.
With reporting by the State House News Service's Matt Murphy