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The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday delayed for a month the debate it had planned Thursday on legislation prohibiting handheld cellphone use while driving, a decision that will give senators a chance to focus on writing and filing state budget amendments.
The Senate has passed versions of the hands-free cellphone use bill in each of the last two sessions and had adopted an order to consider the latest version (S 2198) on Thursday. But during an informal session Wednesday morning, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr began the process of delaying the debate, and Democrats in the majority were on board with the postponement.
"It's being put off until after the budget so we will take it up, it's all teed up, the amendments are set," Senate President Karen Spilka told reporters after a Constitutional Convention where lawmakers voted 156-37 to advance an income surtax on wealthy households. "There was concern over filing amendments as well as budget amendments, so to make it easier for members it's going to be put off. We will consider it June 6."
Tarr moved to print the 28 amendments filed to the bill in the Senate calendar, a procedural tactic sometimes used the day of scheduled debate to delay consideration until the next day.
On its own, Tarr's motion would not prevent debate Thursday because the Senate clerks could simply print the amendments in Thursday's calendar. But when the Senate adjourned Wednesday, its adjournment order directed the clerk not to print a calendar for Thursday's session. The hands-free driving bill cannot be considered on the Senate floor until the amendments are printed in the next calendar.
In initiating the delay, Tarr noted that there has been widespread support for similar legislation in the Senate in previous sessions and that members have filed 28 proposals seeking to amend the bill. Senators are also working with a deadline of noon Friday to file amendments to the Ways and Means Committee's $42.7 billion fiscal year 2020 budget plan.
"Given the fact that we have 28 amendments as we gather here this morning and we are also in the midst of contemplating drafting and consideration of thousands of amendments in the context of the budget proposal ... it is important that we can consider this particular bill that relates to hands-free driving free of conflict," Tarr said on the Senate floor as he moved to print the amendments in the calendar "to enable all of the members to carefully consider not only the budget process but also carefully consider all of the amendments that have been filed to this legislation."
The Senate set its own schedule for the hands-free driving bill and the budget at the same time. Last Thursday, the Senate adopted orders setting this Thursday as the day for the distracted driving bill debate and establishing the Friday deadline for budget amendments. Senate leadership's $42.7 billion budget plan was released Tuesday afternoon.
"When we complete our work of filing and considering budget amendments, we can then turn our attention without distraction to the amendments that have been filed to the hands-free bill," Tarr said.
The Senate bill includes a requirement that police collect data on traffic stops to track and identify any disparate enforcement, including information on the driver's age, gender and perceived race and ethnicity. Several of the 28 amendments senators filed to the bill seek to tweak or eliminate that requirement.
Sen. Mark Montigny, who has been a long-time supporter and sponsor of legislation banning hand-held device use while driving, said Wednesday morning that he was not terribly bothered by the delay.
"We did a lot of work to get prepared and you're roaring to go but it's a hell of lot better coming into it knowing the House has finally decided to do it and the governor has said he supports it," the New Bedford Democrat said. "So if we have to wait another few weeks, it's OK. I've waited 15 years."
Though similar legislation has passed the Senate twice, House leadership has not brought it up for debate in that chamber. But earlier this week, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was planning on bringing the bill to the House floor next Wednesday.
"Hopefully, the Senate takes it up on Thursday, possibly, then it's my hope that we take it up next week, next Wednesday," the Winthrop Democrat told reporters after meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka. "That's at least my goal right now."
After a House caucus early Wednesday afternoon, DeLeo told reporters that he still wants to move forward with the House's hands-free driving bill next week despite the Senate's delay.
Texting while driving is already illegal in Massachusetts under a 2010 law, and if a broader ban is passed, Massachusetts would become the 17th state to prohibit handheld phone calls and other device use behind the wheel.
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