The posts on this page are from a variety of Salem blogs and the views expressed are those of the individual blog author.

June 24th, 2013

Drawbridge to Get New Driving Surface

The Kernwood Bridge, which crosses the Danvers River and connects Salem and Beverly.

The pockmarked surface of the Kernwood Bridge will be repaired this summer, according to a letter from Transportation Secretary Richard Davey to Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, the Salem News reports.

The bridge connects North Salem to the Ryal Side neighborhood of Beverly over the Danvers River. It is a swing-style drawbridge and the drawbridge portion of the bridge underwent repairs earlier this year too.

The bridge is owned and operated by the MassDOT.

No start date has been announced for the work, the News said.

The work was proposed after Driscoll contacted the state Department of Transportation and ask asked about repairs plans for the bridge, she told the News. MassDOT was “responsive,” she said.

The repair will entail adding an “asphalt-rubber material” to the road surface on the bridge, a material that will work on the existing asphalt and also the wooden planks that form portions of the bridge deck.

June 22nd, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Log Flotilla

Massachusetts State House

Every candidate needs a closing sales pitch, and Gabriel Gomez came up with one that sounds a bit like the fine print on the bottom of a Macy’s receipt: Take me home, try me on, return me in 17 months if you’d like a different color.

The Republican businessman from Cohasset, who incidentally doesn’t much like talking about his business, tried out the pitch in his final debate earlier this week against Congressman Edward Markey.

“You’ve had 37 years in D.C. to get these important things done,” Gomez said. “Give me 17 months, and I will keep my word, and I will do what I say.”

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to take him up on that offer, but late polling showed Markey extending his lead over Gomez among likely voters, with one poll from UMass Lowell declaring the Malden Democrat ahead by as many 20 points. Few believe the margin will be that large, and it’s still unclear whether the probationary term would count against Gomez’s self-imposed term limit pledge should he manage to derail Markey.

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While the U.S. Senate race entered its final stages, the somewhat dormant Legislature sprang to life this week, advancing bills to keep government running while budget negotiations continue, to align the state’s health care system with the Affordable Care Act and to keep ongoing IT and capital maintenance projects funded and on track.

Still on hold, however, are the annual state budget and an accompanying tax bill intended to finance transportation that will go to the wire with just nine days left in the fiscal year.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer compared the build-up of major tax and spending bills to a “log flotilla,” noting everything can flow when one log is pulled out, but he gave little clue as to when and who would do the pulling, nor a description of the troublesome log.

Addressing Sen. Bruce Tarr’s question on the status of negotiations, Brewer said, “I would like to tell the minority leader a lot, but it is in conference, so I really can’t tell him a lot of the machinations.”

The machinery – a little rusty, but starting to warm up – had no problem spitting out a $4 billion interim spending measure filed this week by Gov. Deval Patrick and whisked through the Legislature in one day that will keep the money flowing after July 1, assuming no budget will in place for the start of the fiscal year. 

This isn’t Washington, after all. No threat of a government shutdown here.

If even an agreement can be reached quickly, starting fiscal 2014 without a budget in place seems all but a certainty at this point given the governor’s plans to spend the next week in San Francisco with his oldest daughter and new grandson. His staff will also probably want to use the 10 days they are given to review any bills before deciding on vetoes.

Senate President Therese Murray – with Brewer, Jennifer Flanagan and Michael Barrett at her side – dropped her anticipated welfare reform bill onto the work-in-progress pile, detailing a proposal heavy on putting poor people back to work with enough fraud prevention measures to win over Republicans and conservative Democrats.

“The system has been stagnant for a long time and we want to shake up the system,” Murray said at a press conference. Since 1995 to be exact. Because that’s when a younger Therese Murray just three years into her Senate career helped write the last major overhaul of the welfare in the system.

Murray laughed and said, “No,” when asked if she considered this bill to bring her career full circle. Term limited, Murray has just another year and half in the president’s office, at which point she’ll have to make a decision on her political career. But more on that later.

For now, Murray said she learned just last September that former Gov. Mitt Romney had ended an integral component of her 1995 welfare to work reform. The new bill would recreate the “full employment program” to help place welfare recipients in full-time jobs to get them off public assistance.

Still on the topic of Romney, the former Republican governor was also responsible for ending the practice of requiring photo identification on electronic welfare benefit cards, a measure once again championed by House and Senate Republicans and included in both the House and Senate reform plans.

Murray had predicted that the photo ID requirement would be the major point of contention within the Democratic caucus, and she was right. Sen. Jamie Eldridge argued that seniors and the disabled would find the requirement to be a burden because they often rely on others to buy their groceries or pick up prescriptions, but Sen. Stephen Brewer said he had faith in the administration to craft “compassionate” regulations to adjust for those situations.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, doesn’t much like the idea of photo IDs either, but in her attempt to delay the implementation of the reform she couched her criticism in terms that just as easily could have come from the mouths of any of the four Republicans on the floor.

Sometimes those defrauding the welfare system aren’t the only ones wasting taxpayer dollars, she said. “Sometimes we are perpetrators of waste,” she said during debate. Chang-Diaz’s proposal to let the auditor do a cost-benefit analysis of the photo ID requirement failed. The overall bill sailed through, 37-1, with Chang-Diaz dissenting.

Where welfare reform goes from here is anyone’s guess. While the Senate would prefer the House take up its bill sooner rather than later, House Democratic leaders decided to tack a small number of reforms into a mid-year spending bill knowing full-well Murray’s plans to pass welfare reform on Thursday.

Predictably, the Senate ignored the House welfare provisions in the $98 million supplemental budget bill and pitched it right back into Speaker Robert DeLeo’s court.

Almost an afterthought for the week but a development that will be revisited with increasing interest after this election cycle, former Obama health official Donald Berwick officially entered the 2014 gubernatorial race with a press release. 

Which brings us back to Murray. Asked whether she might run for governor, the Plymouth Democrat said this: “There have been many people who asked me too, but I haven’t made any decisions yet.” Take it for what it’s worth.

STORY OF THE WEEK: With nine days left in the fiscal year, there’s an annual budget, a supplemental budget and an interim budget. And then there’s welfare reform. Only one is finished.

June 18th, 2013

Welfare Reform Bill Introduced on Beacon Hill

Those who qualify for Disaster SNAP assistance will be able to use Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at grocery stores.

State Senate Democrats have introduced a new bill this week intended at reforming the Massachusetts welfare system, including forcing applicants to prove they have searched for employment through a state program.

According to Boston.com, the bill is aimed at shaking up what Senate President Therese Murray called a “stagnant” system. And the Senate expects to act quickly with a vote coming Thursday.

Boston.com reported the bill would also force adult welfare recipients to use EBT cards with “photographic identity.” Penalties of perjury could be imposed on recipients who use a false identity.

In a statement, Republican Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the bill “reflects a comprehensive approach that seeks to transition recipients away from dependence on welfare programs and towards sustainable economic independence.”

However, Tarr said that while the bill addresses issues of fraud and abuse, it “does not contain additional reforms that were offered during Senate budget deliberations.”

How would you like to see the state’s welfare system reformed? Let us know in the comments below.

June 16th, 2013

DCR Commissioner Lambert Stepping Down

One inbound Riverway lane will be shut down today.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation will have a new commissioner June 22 when its current commissioner, Ed Lambert, steps down.

This week Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rick Sullivan announced Deputy Commissioner Jack Murray will take over as commissioner once Lambert leaves to become the new vice chancellor for Government Relations and Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“Jack has proven himself a strong leader and tireless advocate for the people who use our parks and other public facilities, and I am thrilled to have him lead this important department,” said Governor Deval Patrick in a statement. “Commissioner Lambert did a tremendous job over the past two years working to restore and better protect our resources for Massachusetts residents and tourists.  I thank him for his service and wish him the best of luck in his new role.”

According to the statement, Murray has been deputy commissioner for DCR since 2007, overseeing the commonwealth’s parks operations and their annual $75 million budget.

Sullivan said Murray “will be a tremendous asset to our team” and thanked Lambert for “his tireless service” in the statement.

June 15th, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Olde Home Days

His was not the story of Deval Patrick, or Mitt Romney or Bill Weld. 

Argeo Paul Cellucci started local on the Board of Selectmen in his beloved town of Hudson and worked his way up: state representative, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, ambassador. He was the Calvin Coolidge of his time, according to former Minority Leader Richard Tisei, and Democrats, Republicans and Canadians, alike, loved and respected him for it.

Cellucci passed away last weekend after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 65, and on Thursday he became the 13th public figure to lie in state under the State House rotunda. The memorial service and public viewing for the former governor drew a who’s-who to Beacon Hill, including Romney, Michael Dukakis, Jane Swift, faces from the Weld and Cellucci administrations who haven’t seen the inside of the capitol since the late 1990s, and even William Bulger and his old Senate rival David Locke.

Above all, Cellucci was remembered as a classy public servant, one who put people before party (as Gabriel Gomez is prone to say), worked across party lines, and helped define what it is to be a successful Massachusetts Republican. He never lost a political race, had a memorable affinity for movies and played a mean game of bocce, even if his talent for the game remained in question.

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Among the faces in the faces in the crowd on Thursday was Bulger, the former Senate President. 

While jurors in the murder and racketeering trial of his brother Whitey Bulger heard about a gun cache the alleged mobster kept close to Billy Bulger’s South Boston home, the aging pol quietly took in the Cellucci ceremony before venturing back into the chamber he led for 18 years to watch as Linda Dorcena Forry was sworn into the Senate.

A daughter of Haitian immigrants, Forry’s swearing in was routine, but symbolic of the changing face of Boston. She takes over as the representative of a Senate district that includes Mattapan, Dorchester and South Boston, the traditionally Irish stronghold from which Bulger drew his power for 26 years. 

Ironically, Forry began her political career 17 years ago as a State House aide to former Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, who is trying to make her own history running to become the first minority, female mayor of Boston. Forry mentioned her early work for Golar Richie during remarks to the Senate after she was sworn in by Patrick.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones may gotten caught up in the Cellucci nostalgia when he left the door open, if only a crack, to supporting a minimum wage hike this session in exchange for some pro-business unemployment insurance and overtime reforms.

As the Globe’s Scot Lehigh noted, Cellucci supported an effort in 1998 to hike the minimum wage after he and Weld opposed the move three years earlier. Cellucci came to the new position after Democrats pushed through the wage hike over Weld’s veto, and the feared dire effects on the economy never came to pass.

The Labor and Workforce Development Committee took hours of testimony on the minimum wage this week, bombarded by supporters who flooded the hearing to try to convince lawmakers that $8 an hour is no longer enough to support a family. 

Senate President Therese Murray, who has pushed the issue so far this year, didn’t need convincing on that point, but has yet to pick the over-under on an $11 line currently set by Sen. Marc Pacheco and Rep. Antonio Cabral.

Murray, Gov. Patrick and Treasurer Steven Grossman may be reluctant to lock themselves into specific new minimum wage level, but Republican Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez suffers from no such indecision.

In his continuing attempts to appeal to moderate independent and Democratic voters, Gomez during his second debate with U.S. Rep. Edward Markey came out in direct support for a $10 federal minimum wage, $2.75 higher than the current federal minimum and $1 more than President Barack Obama called for in his State of Union.

Gomez heads in the final week of the campaign looking at multiple polls that show him within single digits of Markey. Surveys released this week by Suffolk University and WBUR showed Markey leading Gomez by seven points as the two race toward June 25.

Obama’s campaign stop in Boston Wednesday for Markey and former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Worcester on Saturday are an attempt by Democrats to drive home a simple, but important factor in the race: voters need to pay more attention because they’re not accustomed to late June elections.

“I need Ed Markey in the U.S. Senate, so this election’s going to come down to turnout,” Obama said at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury. “You can’t just turn out during a presidential election. You’ve got to turn out in this election.”

The Suffolk poll that showed Markey’s lead dwindling also showed that Patrick is a resilient brand, even in the face of continued negative attention on his welfare agencies and wasted public benefits. Sixty-five percent of voters have a favorable opinion of the second-term governor, and 66 percent approve of the job he is doing.

If Suffolk had polled municipal officials instead of likely voters, Patrick’s numbers may have been decidedly lower. The tension between the two sides has risen to an all-time high, and gone is Tim “I’m a mayor like you” Murray to try to smooth things over. 

“I have to register with you a real sense of disappointment, confusion, bewilderment, a level of upsetness in terms of where we are today versus where we thought we were a few weeks ago,” Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan told Secretary Glen Shor, referring to the administration’s decision to withhold $150 million, or half, of the local road funding approved by the Legislature.

Shor said the governor is still worried that without substantial new revenues from a tax bill being negotiated between the House and Senate, the increase in Chapter 90 funding was be unaffordable. More likely – in the minds of selectmen, mayors and city councilors – is that Patrick is playing politics with their road money to gain leverage within the tax conference committee.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Who can unite four Senate presidents, two speakers, a White House chief of staff, a foreign ambassador and five governors, including two former party presidential nominees? Argeo Paul Cellucci (1948-2013).

June 14th, 2013

Is West Nile Virus Coming to Salem?

A new interactive map shows you the intensity of West Nile season in the area.

After a particularly tough year for the West Nile virus in 2012, Massachusetts health officials are bracing for what could be another busy summer for the mosquito-borne illness.

Although, with so many factors playing into the problem, the track of West Nile is not an easy one to predict, said Kevin Cranston, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“We can’t pin down all of the elements that go into why one season is bad and another season is not,” Cranston said.

But if this summer is similar to last summer—marked by extended periods of very hot weather—some parts of the state could see a high number of cases as occurred in 2012.

To give residents a sense of West Nile’s prevalence in Salem, Patch has pulled together county-level 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Different factors play into outbreaks 

Long periods of warm weather can help accelerate the maturation of the type of mosquitoes known for spreading West Nile virus, Cranston said. Rainfall also might play a part in the problem, as these mosquitoes thrive in pools of stagnant water.

But there are other factors, too, related to mosquito abundance and activity and the amplification cycle of the virus.

The West Nile virus “season” lasts from around mid June until the first “killing frost”—when temperatures drop below 32 degrees for several hours in the local environment, effectively killing that area’s mosquito population, Cranston said.

Testing to begin soon

The Bureau of Infectious Disease begins collecting and reporting on mosquito samples the week of June 17 and continues testing throughout the season, Cranston said.

West Nile virus is reported through two main processes. First, the bureau works with the local mosquito control projects to trap and sort mosquitoes by species—different species are known for spreading different viruses. A pool of about 10 to 15 mosquitoes is then tested for the presence of viruses such as West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE.

“If even one mosquito in that pool has the virus it is considered to be a positive pool. We assemble that data over time to show how a given region of the state is more or less likely to have infected mosquitoes in the environment,” Cranston said.

Information also comes in from physicians when patients report symptoms that may be caused by West Nile virus. Samples are taken from the individual and tested at the state lab in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. This not only helps the physician make a diagnosis and treat the patient but also assists the state in establishing risk levels.

“Clearly if one person got West Nile virus in a certain area, other people are likely to get it as well,” Cranston said.

The bureau compiles all this data and shares that information on a map on its Web page, identifying the risk level on a scale of one to four, from “low” to “critical.”

How to protect yourself from West Nile

“We consider West Nile virus essentially here to stay. It’s endemic in the environment, not just in Massachusetts but in many parts of the United States,” Cranston said. “West Nile virus has become a fairly consistent summertime reality.”

To help protect against the virus, the state works with local boards of health and mosquito control projects to conduct ground-level spraying of low-toxicity chemicals designed to kill adult mosquitoes.

But individuals can also do a lot to protect themselves against the insects that spread the West Nile virus.

Stagnant water supplies are perfect breeding grounds for these mosquitoes. Old tires, flower pots, bird baths that are not changed regularly and even storm gutters in need of a cleaning are possible places for the insects to breed.

“We urge folks to take a look around their environment and get rid of all the places mosquitoes might breed,” Cranston said.  

The mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus tend to come out at night, so people should avoid spending extended periods of time outdoors without protection—wearing long sleeves and pants and applying insect repellent. More information about the type of products recommended by the Bureau of Infectious Disease can be viewed on the bureau website.

Who’s at risk?

Most people who contract West Nile virus won’t even know they have it. About 80 percent of cases are “very mild” and may not even involve a trip to the doctor’s office, Cranston said.

About 20 percent of people affected will have the typical viral symptoms—headache, sore throat, muscle aches, a mild or even high fever. But even these symptoms can be hard to diagnose as being caused by West Nile virus, Cranston said.

However, a small group of people who contact the virus—less than 1 percent—will experience more serious neurological symptoms and can end up with meningitis or encephalitis, Cranston said.

These more serious issues tend to occur in people over the age of 50, he noted.

“Many people have had a West Nile virus infection and not known it,” he said. “If a person has signs of illness and is really feeling lousy, and certainly if there are signs or symptoms of brain involvement—headaches, high fever, difficulty looking directly at light—they should contact their physician.”

“We don’t expect widespread serious illness in this or any season, but the risk is always there,” Cranston said.

The Cases and Incidence Rates

You can see how counties across the state compare by using the interactive map above, which shows the number of West Nile cases in humans and the infection rate. West Nile – named after the district in Uganda where the virus was first discovered – spread to New York City in 1999, and has been migrating across the United States ever since.  Last year was the deadliest year so far for West Nile in the United States, with more than 5,600 “confirmed and probable” cases, and at least 286 related deaths. 

Local predictions for 2012 are very difficult to make. But nationally, “the number of humans with West Nile virus disease continues to rise in the United States,” said Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases

No Vaccine, Little Reporting, But a High Cost

While there is a West Nile vaccine for horses, there isn’t one for humans, according to Purdue University Professor Richard Kuhn. Furthering the problem is the fact that cases of West Nile often go unreported. 

“It’s always underreported because if someone has a mild case they might not report it; they might think it’s a cold,” said Judith M. Lavelle, Health Communications Specialist at the CDC. 

There is currently no comprehensive treatment for someone infected by West Nile, which makes severe diagnoses all the more frightening. Patch spoke to one Texas man who survived a West Nile infection in 2006, and has dedicated himself to educating the public about the potentially debilitating disease.

“I was told point blank that I would never walk again – to forget it,” said Donnie Manry, of the Bryan County Police Department in Texas. “It was devastating.”

Manry, who was 43 at the time, said that within five days of being stung, encephalitis and meningitis left him paralyzed. Through rehabilitation, Manry was able to regain control of his body again, and now uses a cane to walk. 

From Birds to Bugs to Humans

West Nile has also been detected in bird populations, notably in Central Michigan. “Certain types of birds serve as a reservoir for West Nile Virus,” Kuhn said. An infected bird can pass the virus along to an uninfected mosquito when bitten. That’s why Wisconsin has launched a hotline for people to report dead birds in the area. 

Many states have begun testing mosquitoes for West Nile, withPennsylvaniaIllinois and California all reporting positive detection in certain counties. After the virus was detected in California, LA County began overnight aerial spraying to stop the spread. Residents are cautioned to remain indoors during the spraying.

Prevention and Symptoms

The CDC recommends using an EPA-certified mosquito repellant if you’re going to be outdoors, and lists some additional prevention tips on their website, including:

  • When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants outdoors.
  • Place mosquito netting over infant carriers when you are outdoors.
  • At least once or twice a week, empty water from flower pots, pet food and water dishes, birdbaths, swimming pool covers, buckets, barrels, and cans.

With the 2012 mosquito season was the highest on record, health officials are cautioning people to take immediate action if you believe you’ve been infected. The CDC website lists varying degrees of symptoms, including: 

  • Serious Symptoms in a Few People. About one in 150 people infected with WNV will develop severe illness, including high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, and paralysis.
  • Milder Symptoms in Some People. Up to 20 percent of the people who become infected have symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back.
  • No Symptoms in Most People. Approximately 80 percent of people  infected with WNV will not show any symptoms at all.
June 14th, 2013

Cellucci Memorial Held at State House

The casket of former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci arrives at the State House for a memorial service Thursday.

 

Former Gov. Paul Cellucci was honored by the commonwealth he served Thursday with a memorial service at the State House.

Cellucci passed away at 65 over the weekend after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Beacon Street was closed to traffic temporarily around noon as a state police-led procession brought his casket to the place where Cellucci served as governor from 1997 to 2001.

One of the police vehicles in the procession was from Cellucci’s hometown of Hudson.

Among the dignitaries outside the State House as the procession arrived were Gov. Deval Patrick, former Gov. William Weld and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

The Massachusetts State Police Pipes and Drums played as eight troopers carried Cellucci’s casket into the State House for a memorial service in the House chambers..

Cellucci’s casket will lie in the Hall of Flags Rotunda of the State House for a public viewing Thursday from 2:30 to 7 p.m. A public funeral Mass will be held in Hudson Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Michael’s Parish, 21 Manning St.

Cellucci was also a former state senator and state representative, former lieutenant governor under Weld and was U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush.

June 12th, 2013

Memorial, Funeral Planned For Cellucci

Former Gov. Paul Cellucci died at age 65 after a five-year battle with ALS.

Former Gov. Paul Cellucci, who passed away Saturday after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, will be honored at the State House with a memorial service Thursday.

A funeral Mass for Cellucci will be held Friday in his hometown of Hudson as well, according to a statement from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, Cellucci’s motorcade will be arriving at the State House with a formal procession up the State House front steps.

An invitation-only memorial service for Cellucci will begin at 12:30 p.m. According to the Boston Globe, the service will be live-streamed.

Thereafter, a public viewing for Cellucci will be held in the Hall of Flags Rotunda at the State House from 2:30 to 7 p.m., according to UMass Medical School.

On Friday, the public is invited to attend Cellucci’s funeral Mass at St. Michael’s Parish, 21 Manning St. in Hudson at 11 a.m.

Cellucci was governor of the Bay State from 1997 to 2001 and then served as U.S. ambassador to Canada for President George W. Bush’s administration. He was previously lieutenant governor under William Weld.

June 8th, 2013

What Do You Think About Digital Billboards?

A Clear Channel Digital billboard, featuring the late star Michael Jackson, is seen in Los Angeles in February 2010.

Are you ready for digital billboards on state land across the commonwealth? How about in your town or city? The Department of Transportation wants the glowing house-sized signs on its property across the state, and the revenue they’ll bring to the state, according to The Boston Globe.

Under the current deal signed with Clear Channel, the state would get a cut of each billboard’s revenue—either 25 percent or $90,000 per year, whichever is higher. But other states negotiated more lucrative deals.

Current state law allows these digital billboards, but prohibits any animation. So you won’t see the latest Geico lizard ad or anything like that, but you may see a rotating set of images. It also requires the sign’s owner to set aside time for public service announcements.

You may have passed one of these signs already. There are digital billboards in Foxborough, Medford, Stoneham and a few other locations.

Former Governor Michael Dukakis is a vocal opponent of the digital billboards (and billboards in general). He was especially angry about the lack of siting oversight for local communities.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why we need these in the Commonwealth,” said Dukakis in an interview with the Globe. “The T is hell-bent on becoming the state’s primary visual polluter.”

What do you think? Should Massachusetts allow more of these digital billboards? Do you find them distracting while you drive? Should the state negotiate for a bigger cut of the profits? Or should they be banned altogether? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

June 8th, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: When You’ve Had a Bad Day

Gabriel Gomez and Rep. Edward Markey will face off in the U.S. Senate special election June 25.

It could have been a turning point in the race, the moment when the lights flicked on and the much-anticipated contest finally lived up to expectations for a U.S Senate race.

Would Congressman Edward Markey finally slam the door on Gabriel Gomez and dash the GOP’s dream of Scott Brown redux? Could Gomez shine, narrow the polls and entice national Republican donors to start paying attention?

Instead, all anyone wanted to talk about Thursday morning was the thrilling Bruins double overtime victory in Game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals. Tuukka Rask as a write-in?

At long last, Markey and Gomez shared the same debate stage. In fact, they were so close to each other in the WBZ studios they practically shared a podium. It was all Markey could do not graze Gomez as he repeatedly threw his hands up in disbelief. “Look it,” he would say over and over, refuting one charge after another lobbed his way.

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Neither Gomez nor Markey came across as a particularly skilled debater, but Gomez came prepared to try to knock Markey off his game and get under the veteran Congressman’s skin. It didn’t really work.

The two spent an hour trading familiar campaign barbs. Gomez highlighted Markey’s resume as someone who has served in a deeply unpopular Congress since the days of Gerald Ford, reprising one-liners when he called him a “poster boy” for term limits and debuting new themes when he accused Markey of “putting party and politics before the people.”

For Markey, he wanted voters to come away thinking of the new-to-politics Republican as a cookie-cutter candidate with the same “stale” Republican ideas that Massachusetts voters have repeatedly rejected. Those positions included Gomez’s opposition to an assault weapons ban, support for cutting back on Social Security benefits and a willingness to support a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

The openings that Gomez did give Markey, the Malden Democrat largely let slide.

Two new polls from New England College and UMass Amherst, both conducted before the debate, showed Markey leading Gomez comfortably by 12 and 11 points, respectively. In the plus column for Gomez, the Republican was leading Markey by 17 points among independent voters in the UMass Amherst survey. 

Voters, however, trusted Markey over Gomez 47-32 to handle the economy, and Gomez’s supposed strength on national security with his background as a Navy SEAL did not resonate. Voters gave the edge to Markey on national security 41-33.

Next week’s visit by President Barack Obama to stump for Markey in Boston should be interesting for several reasons. Not only does Markey oppose the president’s position to reform Social Security, but he also gave a thumb’s up to White House foil Rep. Darrell Issa, urging the California Republican to make full use of his subpoena power to learn the lessons from the Benghazi consulate attack and the IRS’s targeting of the Tea Party.

While Gomez and Markey have circled June 25 on their calendars, others are more keenly eyeing June 26. Because if Markey prevails, that’s when the race for his seat in Congress will begin in earnest, even if it’s already begun to some degree under the Golden Dome.

Sen. Katherine Clark and Sen. Karen Spilka are both preparing to run for Markey’s seat in Congress and basked in the attention at hearings this week on Beacon Hill where Spilka pushed her canine “lemon law” to regulate dog breeders, and Clark tackled the issue of access to abortion with a bill that seeks to ease parental consent laws for minors.

“As a prior hobby breeder myself, for chocolate labs . . . it’s really important to me as well to have a bill that’s workable, good for puppies, good for people who buy the puppies,” Spilka said at a hearing Tuesday.

Defending abortion access might stir the liberal base, but it’s tough to compete with a bill titled “An Act to Protect Puppies and Kittens.”

Gubernatorial drinking habits may be nothing new. Bill Weld was a self-described fan of the “amber colored liquid,” while Gov. Deval Patrick has always been more an oenophile, keeping a stash of wine and glasses in his desk cabinet.

But nobody was expecting Patrick to dish on getting tanked alone when he showed up for a discussion on “leadership and generational responsibility” at the Cambridge tech firm HubSpot. The governor dropped his guard a bit as he discussed the day-long manhunt for second marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Among the gems from Patrick: President Obama woke him up from a nap in his office to inquire about the search, and he was relieved that Tsarnaev had been found so that he didn’t have to listen to “bitching and moaning” about his stay-at-home order.

Patrick also said he arrived at Sweet P Farm in the Berkshire around supper time on Saturday, took a swim, and proceeded to get drunk on chardonnay by himself at a nearby restaurant while reading his iPad over a dinner of duck confit, soup and salad.

When he wasn’t talking candidly about how he likes to unwind, Patrick busied himself tagging bald eagle chicks and entrusting the state to the capable hands of Secretary of State William Galvin as he went to Chicago to celebrate a street named in his honor.

Meanwhile, the House acted unanimously to approve a $1.4 billion, five-year borrowing plan for public and affordable housing, and House and Senate negotiators began poring over the details of the state’s fiscal 2014 budget due in three weeks.

Some House Republicans and Democrats pleaded with budget conferees not to wait for Senate President Therese Murray’s welfare reform bill to act, which the Plymouth Democrat said won’t be ready until late June.

Rep. Shauna O’Connell (R-Taunton) may have to wait until then to find a more receptive audience for her reform ideas than her colleagues on the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

O’Connell grew up in public housing and has been a vocal advocate for eliminating fraud and waste to make sure tax dollars are spent on families who truly need the benefit. However, she was put on the hot-seat at a hearing this week and grilled about the cost of her reform ideas and the burden they would place on an already stretched agency.

Nothing a few glasses of chardonnay can’t fix.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Round One of the Markey-Gomez tilt goes to Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins.

June 1st, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Death With Benefits

Massachusetts State House

The specter of deceased citizens collecting welfare benefits haunted the marbled halls of the State House this week as Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray tied up the loose ends dangling on his six-and-a-half years with the Patrick administration and Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the Obama administration for allegedly putting fishermen on death row.

Other than that, the arrival of steamy days in Boston ushered in a post-Memorial Day and budget week lull at the State House with the governor out of town, politicos watching two special elections and committees plodding forward with bill hearings while lawmakers wait for word from on high about their next big votes.

Congressman Ed Markey and Republican Gabriel Gomez also continued sniping from a distance in the lead-up to next week’s first debate, with First Lady Michelle Obama and song lady Carole King both in Massachusetts to campaign for Markey.

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Auditor Suzanne Bump released a blockbuster audit of the Department of Transitional Assistance alleging $15 million in questionable spending on welfare benefits, including 1,164 cases totaling $2.4 million in benefits flowing to enrollees after they were reported deceased or to recipients using a dead person’s Social Security number. 

If Auditor Suzanne Bump was seeking to make a name for herself as a nonpartisan watchdog of the public purse, she hit the jackpot with this one. The report played perfectly into the hands of Republicans and conservative Democrats eager to jump on any morsel of evidence that welfare benefits are being abused.

What Bump might not have been expecting, however, was the tone of the pushback from Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration who had little positive to say about his former labor secretary’s work. And it’s not the first time the accuracy of Bump’s auditing has been questioned.

Patrick told the Herald he found it “infuriating” that Bump’s office had only released the details on 178 cases reviewed in the audit, of which his team found that only 17 were problematic. The spin required walking a fine line: Yes, one case of fraud is too many, but a 99.9 percent success rate ain’t bad either.

Asked whether the Democrat was doing a good job in her role as auditor, Patrick said, “I think it’s too soon to say.” Bump has been auditor for two and a half years.

Unlike other audits, this one isn’t likely to fade soon and will feed into the debate when Senate President Therese Murray files her comprehensive welfare reform legislation, expected soon.

Republicans and some House Democrats were frustrated by the Senate leadership’s decision to push off action on welfare system reforms to improve oversight during their budget debate last week.

But Sen. Murray dropped snippets throughout the week of what will likely be included in her looming welfare bill, including the addition of photo identification to EBT cards that was approved in the House budget.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo still wants welfare reform addressed in some way in the budget, which as of Thursday sits before a conference committee led by Sen. Stephen Brewer and Rep. Brian Dempsey.

Both those men also returned to the work of settling differences between the branches over tax increases, and until the transportation financing details are finalized Transportation Secretary Richard Davey indicated the administration would hold off on deciding whether to send half of the $300 million Chapter 90 funding approved for local road repairs. The first half of those funds is marked for distribution after a borrowing terms bill passes.

Patrick spent most of the week in western Massachusetts on the commencement and farm circuit, save for a brief appearance on Beacon Hill Wednesday just in case the Governor’s Council deadlocked on his latest nominee to the Worcester District Court bench and his presence was needed to break the tie.

Turns out, the trip was not needed. Councilor Michael Albano didn’t show up and the council voted 4-3 to reject attorney Stephen Anderson’s nomination based on his lack of criminal court experience and the suggestion that he lied on his application about the circumstances surrounding his professional break from his former law partners.

It was an apropos end to Lt. Gov. Murray’s tenure chairing the frequently tumultuous council. And as the duty of presiding over the body shifts to Patrick, the governor will have to be even more careful with his judicial nominations knowing tie votes can no longer be broken without a lieutenant to cast the ninth vote. That’s not a common occurrence, but Patrick faces a new dynamic in which four councilors voting together can reject any of his nominees to the bench over his final 18 months in office.

Murray filled his final week in state government with events handing over the responsibilities that have consumed his days since first elected in 2006 to other members of the administration and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, who takes over as chair of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Advisory Council.

Spending his last weekday in office in Westfield announcing new farm grants, Murray stood next to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan, a former mayor of Westfield and now a stand-in for Murray as the most likely member of the administration to run for governor when Patrick’s term ends in 2014.

Sullivan was also on Fish Pier Thursday when Attorney General Martha Coakley announced she would be suing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in federal court to reverse new regulations that cut fishermen’s catch limits by up to 77 percent on some species. Coakley called the rules a “death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it.”

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry cruised past her Republican challenger to become the newest state senator representing South Boston, Dorchester and Mattapan, while attorney Jay Livingstone easily topped former Grossman political hand Josh Dawson in the special Democratic primary to fill former Rep. Marty Walz’s seat based in Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.

Forry’s victory closed the book on one special election, while creating the need for yet another to fill her seat in the House. The number of special legislative elections ongoing now stands at four, with three completed this year.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Tim Murray chapter on Beacon Hill ends; Auditor Suzanne Bump inserts herself into simmering debate on welfare reform.

May 27th, 2013

Legislation Aims to Protect Off-Duty Responders from Lawsuits

Massachusetts State House

The State Senate has unanimously approved a “Good Samaritan Bill” aimed at protecting off-duty first responders from lawsuits if they provide  assistance at an emergency scene.

The issue of protecting first responders and others from lawsuits has come up at various times in recent years, but quickly regained traction in the aftermath of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. 

“While the many off-duty firefighters and EMTs who rushed to help in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings brought this into sharp focus, the fact is we are lucky to have brave men and women who come to the aid of their fellow citizens every day in emergencies from car accidents to heart attacks,” said State Senator Katherine Clark, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. “They shouldn’t have to worry that doing the right thing could result in legal action.”

According to an announcement from Clark’s office, this legislation would specifically place off-duty first responders under the state’s existing Good Samaritan Law, which protects average citizens from frivolous lawsuits if they provide assistance to somebody during an emergency.

“On Marathon Monday, many off-duty firefighters and emergency medical technicians came to the immediate aid of the hundreds of people impacted by the blasts and, as good Samaritans, they should be provided with the same legal protections,” said State Senate President Therese Murray.

State Senator James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat, is the lead sponsor of the bill.

“This legislation not only seeks to protect those who risked their lives to help on Marathon Monday, but the everyday occurrences of an accident on the side of the road or a child injured on the ball field. We should do everything in our power to ensure that those with the adequate training to help do not hesitate out of fear of a lawsuit,” said Timilty.

May 25th, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Exit 10A

The Massachusetts State House.

The rush from Beacon Hill to the westbound turnpike this week had as much to do with two of Worcester’s political sons beating feet from the capitol as with the impending Memorial Day weekend.

As Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray attempted as graceful an exit as possible from politics, fellow Worcester Democrat Rep. John Fresolo made his hasty escape under an ethics cloud feeling “marginalized” by his peers and pressured to resign, which he did.

If not for those two storylines, the focus may have been on the Senate’s breakneck budget debate concluding Thursday night as senators wiped their hands clean of 725 amendments and passed a $34 billion fiscal 2014 budget without the need for Senate President Therese Murray to threaten a Friday or Saturday workday.

But on this week in late May, Tim Murray one of his wishes, for better or worse, as the gaze of the Boston political media was affixed firmly for once on central Massachusetts.

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Murray leaves the administration after next week to take over as president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, a job closer to home and his family that will pay at least $75,000 more than he was earning as a sidekick to Patrick. He’ll finish his service with one last sniff of power as acting governor when Patrick travels to Chicago on Friday to headline the Organizing for Action Illinois State Founders Summit. 

Murray said he was not actively looking to leave before his term expires. But his decision was not a total shocker since Murray already pulled the plug on his political career in January when he decided not to run for governor, the job many that he would pursue after running in lockstep with Patrick for so many years.

For the most part, the arranged marriage between Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick turned out to be a happy and prosperous one. Since 2006, Murray has rarely, if ever, contradicted Patrick on policy or politics, and he was a foot soldier in the 2010 reelection campaign while maintaining good ties with municipal leaders who mostly like and trust the former mayor.

However, the Worcester Democrat’s star started to dim in the winter of 2011 after a poorly explained pre-dawn car crash on a Sterling highway and subsequent questions about his ties to corrupt former Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin. 

All Murray wanted to do on Wednesday was take a bow, talk about his work on municipal partnerships and STEM education, and sail off into the Worcester sunset. Instead, what he got was more questions about McLaughlin, the possibility of a future indictment and whether he had any regrets.

“Tim, I just want to tell you, once a part of this family, always a part of this family and as a grateful governor, a grateful citizen and friend I’m awful glad we passed this way together,” Patrick told Murray at his farewell press conference, before joking (maybe, not entirely) that he was “miffed” Murray was leaving him to deal with Terry, Bob and the Governor’s Council alone.

The founders of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts saw fit to create the position of lieutenant governor, but did not see the office as important enough to warrant a replacement should its occupant leave office. And so it is that Patrick will finish – or not – his second term without a lieutenant, and Secretary of State William Galvin moves within one Obama nomination of the governorship.

Massachusetts voters may not have heard the last of Tim Murray. Not sure if Murray really wanted to lump himself in with the likes of Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, but he did anyway when he said he would not rule out a future return to politics. “There’s all these comeback stories. Just read the news,” he said.

While Murray was saying goodbye on Wednesday, Fresolo, too, decided to pull the plug on his political career while under investigation for undisclosed ethical violations that, according to some involved, included abuse of per diem travel expenses.

Fresolo told the Telegram and Gazette he felt “marginalized” by the process and could no longer effectively serve his district while on the outs with his colleagues. Fresolo’s suggestion that he was pressured to resign, and did so after negotiations with the Ethics Committee, prompted a flat denial from House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the only official words to emerge from the investigation.

“No member or officer of the House of Representatives pressured John Fresolo to resign. His resignation was not the product of negotiations,” a DeLeo spokesman said in a statement. 

The public may never know what really happened behind closed and guarded doors in the State House where the Ethics Committee took nearly 20 hours of testimony, but one source said Fresolo “got hammered” during the proceedings, and there seemed little doubt a public airing of his transgressions would have followed had he not resigned. Since that was probably not what Fresolo or his House colleagues wanted, the resignation card was played and the House never had to deal with laying out to the public a case for any sort of punishment. 

The other Murray – Senate President Therese Murray – spent her week shepherding the other 38 members of the Senate through what could be her penultimate budget debate, navigating 725 amendments to produce a $39.989 billion spending plan for fiscal 2014. Though she did let Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg wield the gavel a bit more than usual.

Many amendments were adopted, adding $64.8 million in spending to the bottom line for salary increases for human service workers and other programs. The Senate also joined the House in agreeing to pay raises for judges. More amendments were rejected than adopted, including a large block related to public assistance the Senate chieftain said would be addressed when she rolls out a welfare reform bill in the coming weeks.

While Sen. Mark Montigny quarreled with some of his colleagues about the value and appropriateness of addressing policy in a budget versus the traditional committee process, few had qualms with tacking on systematic reforms to the Sex Offender Registry system. The Senate added new classification and disclosure rules that address one of the few named priorities to get addressed by either branch this session.

“A lot of these predators are incurable recidivists. We are going to have to figure out what to do. At least the folks will have the ability to know that the person living three doors down is an animal,” Sen. Gale Candaras said, contending for quote of the week.

Republican Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez also made a strong play for most quote-worthy by calling U.S. Rep. Ed Markey “pond scum” for approving a critical ad juxtaposing his picture with that of Osama bin Laden. That’s how Gomez capped a week that started side-by-side in Dorchester with Sen. John McCain, who believes in Gomez even if he did call him Gabriel Giffords.

Markey, meanwhile, accepted an endorsement from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino as he absorbed incoming fire for missing votes in Congress while maintaining a light public campaign schedule. And to cap it off, the Malden Democrat, on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, succumbed to pressure and made available eight years of tax returns dating to 2005.
The debates can’t start soon enough.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lt. Gov. Tim Murray headlined Worcester week in Boston, becoming the first lieutenant governor since Secretary of State John Kerry to step down from the post mid-term.

POPPY AND NONNA: Governor. His Excellency. Deval. And now Poppy. He goes by many names, but Gov. Deval Patrick this week became a grandfather when his eldest daughter Sarah gave birth to Gianluca Noah Patrick Morgese in San Francisco. First Lady Diane Patrick wants to be called Nonna. Born two months early, the newest addition to the Patrick family is said to be doing well, and the grandfather is “over the moon.” Expect the governor to be travelling west soon, and leaving the keys temporarily to Acting Gov. Galvin.

May 22nd, 2013

Murray to Resign June 2; Patrick Calls Him ‘Outstanding Partner’

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick speak at a Wednesday press conference at the State House where Murray announced his resignation.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said none of the controversies that have dogged him during his tenure on Beacon Hill contributed to his decision to announce his resignation.

In a press conference at the State House Wednesday, Murray said his final day on the job will be June 2. The next day he will take over as president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce where his salary will reportedly be around $200,000.

In January, Murray said he had no intention of running for governor when Gov. Deval Patrick’s term expires in January 2015.

“This has been a very difficult but empowering decision,” Murray said. “It has been an honor to serve as lieutenant governor.”

Patrick called Murray an “outstanding partner” during his time in the corner office. Among the accomplishments Patrick touted were his work with the homeless and on domestic violence as well as working closely with government leaders in cities and towns.

Murray is also currently the head of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

“He was here, in every way, for the right reasons,” Patrick said. “This is no small loss to our team or for me.”

Indeed, there will be no replacement for Murray. Under the current state Constitution there is no mechanism for replacing the lieutenant governor if they leave office before their term ends.

Murray said the current investigation into former Chelsea Housing Authority director Michael McLaughlin, who has pleaded guilty to felony charges related to concealing his salary and has ties to Murray, had nothing to do with his decision to resign.

“This was a unique and special opportunity that was not going to be there in January 2015,” Murray said. “It builds on everything that I’ve been working on.”

Murray said he had no concerns about a possible indictment coming his way in connection with the McLaughlin investigation.

Murray was also involved in an early-morning car crash while driving a state vehicle in 2011.

He added he was not “actively pursuing” any job when he was approached about the Worcester job and at first was not interested before changing his mind after discussing the idea with his family.

Murray would not rule out a run for higher political office at some point in the future.

“We’ll see,” Murray said. “I’ve got young kids right now … It takes a toll, (campaigns) are non-stop, frenetic events.”

Patrick was asked if the resignation reinforced the idea his administration is entering a “lame duck” phase.

“You judge us over the next 18 months and see if we slow down,” Patrick said. 
“I believe we will show you that we don’t intend to.” 

May 22nd, 2013

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray to Resign

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray

UPDATE, 12:15 p.m.: The Massachusetts Republican Party was quick to jump on the reports about Murray’s resignation, saying Murray is trying “to outrun the scandal that dogs him” in a statement on their website.

MassGOP attempted to liken Murray’s exit to that of former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2007.

“History doesn’t always repeat itself, but in this case it looks like Tim Murray is following the same path as a previous, disgraced Democratic official,” said Nate Little MassGOP Executive Director in the scathing statement. “Only time will tell if Murray follows the Finneran playbook to the end, complete with indictment and guilty plea.”

UPDATE, 10:45 a.m.: Boston.com has updated their original post, reporting that Murray is anticipated to resign next month according to a top administration official.

ORIGINAL STORY: Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray will be resigning Wednesday, according to CBS Boston.

CBS Boston reported sources saying Murray will leave to become the head of his hometown Worcester Chamber of Commerce, a position that pays over $200,000 a year.

Murray announced earlier this year he would not run for governor in 2014.

Boston.com reports there is no mechanism by which the state Constitution allows for the replacement of the lieutenant governor, meaning Gov. Deval Patrick will be without one until he leaves office in January 2015.

As a result, Boston.com reported the next in line of succession for governor is Secretary of State William Galvin.

Murray’s tenure as lieutenant governor has been marked with controversy.Boston.com’s report Wednesday mentioned Murray 2011 car crash in a state vehicle as well as ties to former Chelsea Housing Authority director Michael McLaughlin, who has pleaded guilty to felony charges related to concealing his salary.

Patch will have more on this story as it becomes available.

May 22nd, 2013

Want to Work for the City of Salem?

Salem City Hall.

Are you interested in working for the city of Salem?

The following is the city’s current list of job openings (School Department jobs are posted separately).

Click on each link for more information on that position and contact the Human Resources Department at City Hall.

All jobs are posted on www.salem.com.

Two part-time positions are available, approximately 19 hours per week, Monday through Friday, no benefits.

May 21st, 2013

Cash Toll Collection to End Next Year on the Tobin

The toll for crossing the Tobin Bridge, which takes North Shore drivers into Boston on Route 1, will not be collected with cash starting next year.

Salem commuters headed to Boston across the Tobin Bridge won’t have to stop to pay the toll starting next year, the state Department of Transportation announced on Monday.

MassDOT said it is making plans for “All Electronic Tolling” on the Tobin Bridge, a form of toll collection that means drivers don’t have to stop or slow down to pay the toll. There will be several informational meetings to explain the program to North Shore commuters and answer questions about it. The closest meeting will be held in Salem on Tuesday, June 18 at 6 p.m.

The new program is about six month away. Starting in early 2014, drivers will not have the option to stop at a tollbooth and pay the toll with cash on the Tobin Bridge. Instead, tolls will be collected electronically – either by an E-ZPass transponder or by a camera that takes a picture of the license plate and the vehicle’s registered owner is billed by mail.

Currently, drivers pay a $3 toll if using cash and $2.50 if they use an EZ-Pass.

A contractor has been selected – MassDOT didn’t say the name of the company in Monday’s announcement – to install the system.

“With the implementation of this innovative form of toll collection we are saying to our customers that their time is valuable,” said MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey in the announcement. “We are also increasing safety and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by cutting congestion and the time spent idling at the cash booth.”

The benefits of the new program include reduced congestion, increased safety and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, according to MassDOT.

Before the new collection system goes into place, MassDOT is pushing for drivers to join E-ZPass.

EZ-Pass has been used on the Tobin Bridge since the late 1990s, but MassDOT says that 4.1 million drivers paid using cash last year – an average of more than 11,000 vehicles per day. MassDOT didn’t say what percentage of the total number of vehicles that pass through the tolls still use cash, but called it a “significant portion.”

Because of that, MassDOT is planning a new North Shore Customer Walk-In Center – they did not yet say where – and also will put a new mobile E-ZPass registration vehicle on the road this summer.

E-ZPass transponders are also available at 17 AAA branches and 20 Registry of Motor Vehicles branches or can be ordered online: www.Mass.gov/EZPassMA.

May 20th, 2013

New Push For August Meals Tax Holiday

Folks eat at a restaurant.

The Joint Committee on Revenue in the Massachusetts legislature held a hearing last week on the notion of a potential meals tax holiday for August and one supporting group liking its chances.

According to the state’s Restaurant and Business Alliance (R.A.B.A), the hearing held Tuesday for the Meals Tax Holiday Bill saw “no sign of opposition” to the measure.

Twelve legislators have signed on to the bill primarily sponsored by Rep. Keiko Orrall of Lakeville and Sen. Michael O. Moore of Millbury.

If passed, the legislation would go into effect from Sunday, Aug. 11 through Thursday, Aug. 15.

“We should offer a Meals Tax Holiday to benefit employees and small local business owners inside Massachusetts to help stimulate the economy,” said Dave Andelman, R.A.B.A. president in a statement. “The Restaurant and Business Alliance is proud to support this legislation that will help every waiter, waitress, bartender and hospitality worker in Massachusetts.”

“I am focused on helping small businesses and believe that this legislation is a great way to highlight restaurants in the Commonwealth. I am looking forward to seeing this pass this session,” Orrall said in the same statement.

Moore said the legislation would “help relieve some of the burdens” of higher food costs for businesses.

But not everyone in the State House thinks the meals tax holiday is a great idea. It got shot down last year in the House by a vote of 116-to-36, according to the Boston Globe. Rep. Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington) called it  a “gimmick” and “bad public policy,” adding that restaurants could use pricing specials or other promotions to encourage business, the Globe article states.

May 18th, 2013

State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Three’s Company

Massachusetts State House

Like pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit together yet, the Big Three may have been separated at birth, but with each incremental step their destinies seem to grow more intertwined.

No, we’re not talking about those Big Three – Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo – though they play major character roles in this thickening plot. 

Instead, three bills have come to define the early months of the 2013 legislative agenda and resolutions on tax hikes, local road funding and the annual state budget continue to be elusive and dependent on one another.

Patrick spent the early part of his week welcoming British Prime Minister David Cameron to Boston for a few quick meetings and a visit to the Copley memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings before hopping a plane to Ireland for a rendezvous with Murray, already several days into her cross-Atlantic trade mission.

If legislative leaders detect a slight accent creeping in when Patrick returns to work at the State House next week they shouldn’t be alarmed or confused. Then again, they haven’t exactly been speaking the same language lately anyway.

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The Senate Ways and Means Committee this week released its version of the fiscal 2014 state budget, a $33.9 billion spending plan that bore a striking resemblance to the House blueprint that roundly rebuffed Patrick’s calls for massive new investments in transportation and early education.

Unlike the House, the Senate leadership’s budget provides $15 million to expand access to pre-school, a step toward the governor’s preferences. The budget proposal, however, backtracked from the House and governor’s commitment to boost higher education funding to avoid tuition hikes next year at UMass and other public universities. All of that is to say, Senate leaders created ample room to maneuver for eventual conference committee negotiations with the House.

Of course, the divergence from Patrick was not unexpected given how House and Senate leaders already recycled the governor’s expansive tax package that he proposed to finance the new investments, instead moving forward with a more limited, but still quite large $500 million tax increase on gas, tobacco and business.

“I find it interesting to put it mildly that the budget includes tax revenue apparently from a bill that hasn’t passed yet. And not only hasn’t it passed, my understanding is there’s only been one conference committee meeting,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr lamented.

Democratic leaders don’t seem to care much that $430 million in the Senate budget is contingent on passage of the transportation financing tax bill. Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, who sits on the conference committee negotiating the tax bill, said he’s confident the House and Senate are in enough agreement on that front to bank on it in the budget.

Meanwhile, DeLeo was left at home this week to mind the State House with Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray. The most action was on the first floor. There, court officers spent much of the week guarding a conference room where the House Ethics Committee held three days of inquiries into allegations of misconduct against a House member.

The 11 committee members, sworn to secrecy, have been too skittish to comment on even their break schedule, let alone the subject of the inquiry, but Worcester Rep. John Fresolo’s daily presence with Beacon Hill favorite defense attorney Tom Kiley left little doubt of the subject. The nature of the allegations remains in question.

Conveniently timed to coincide with a House PAC fundraiser in the evening, DeLeo also convened a brief mid-week session to take the final vote on a $300 million Chapter 90 bill already behind schedule and anxiously awaited by municipal officials with local roads project in queue.

The Senate must still take one more vote on the road funding bill before it arrives on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, and Lt. Gov. Murray eased, but did not totally bury, local concerns that the road funding could remained tied up and fall hostage to tax and budget negotiations.

The fact remains that the House, the Senate and the governor all support the $300 million funding level for Chapter 90. But the administration continues to waiver on whether it thinks the tax bill before the conference committee will generate enough new money to support the $100 million increase in the local infrastructure program.

“I can tell you unequivocally (the governor is) not going to kick the can down the road and spend money he doesn’t think we have the ability to pay,” Murray told local officials at a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Council. 

Even if the governor signs the bill, he must still file a separate authorization bill to borrow the funds before cities and towns see a penny, and local leaders said they worry the governor could try to use that step as leverage against lawmakers in revenue debate. Murray said he think Patrick might be open to releasing some funding on a “pro-rated, tentative basis.”

If might have been a good week for Patrick to be out of the country given his penchant for peevishness toward questions about his political future.

With the White House in turmoil over the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, new questions about Benghazi and agitation over a Justice Department seizure of Associated Press phone records, the Chicago Sun Times reported on Friday, citing an anonymous “top White House source,” that Obama will look to replace Attorney General Eric Holder when the furor in Washington dies down. 

And the president has an eye on Gov. Patrick or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the paper reported.

Patrick has steadfastly denied any interest in moving on before his second term expires after 2014, but he will likely field another volley of questions about his possible future in the Obama administration when he returns stateside.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate leader’s release a fiscal 2014 budget as reliant on new taxes as the one passed by the House.

May 16th, 2013

Police ‘Keeping an Eye’ on City’s Water Supply

A look across Wenham Lake - the public drinking water supply for Beverly, Salem and a part of Wenham - from the north. Beverly's Brimbal Hills checkered water tank is visible in the distance.

The Salem and Beverly drinking water supply’s primary source – Wenham Lake – is under the watchful eyes of police and many others from roads that come close to the lake.

That’s according to Thomas W. Knowlton, the superintendent of the Salem-Beverly Water Supply Board. His comments came on Wednesday in the wake of the news that seven trespassers were found early Tuesday morning at Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Quabbin Reservoir.

State Police spokesman David Procopio told the Boston Globe that the alleged trespassers were from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore and now live in Amherst, Cambridge, Sunderland and Northampton.

State Police and the FBI are investigating the incident at the water supply for Boston and many communities in greater Boston. An FBI spokesman also told the Globe that the Fusion Center and the Joint Terrorism Task Force have been “called in.”

Knowlton said he was notified about the trespassing at the Quabbin on Tuesday.

“It shows they are keeping a close eye on it,” Knowlton said.

While similar incidents have been reported across the country since Sept. 11, 2001, it is the first incident nearby, Knowlton said.

“The roads are fairly close to the reservoir,” Knowlton said, describing Wenham Lake. He noted that Wenham police do a good job monitoring the 224-acre lake that is on the Beverly and Wenham line. “The police are keeping an eye on things.”

The water is the water supply for the cities of Beverly and Salem plus a portion of Wenham, including Gordon College and Parson’s Hill neighborhood.

The lake is within sight of both Route 1A and Cedar Street in Wenham as well as from the treatment plant at the end of Arlington Avenue in North Beverly.

Knowlton said Wenham Lake pales in comparison to the size of the Quabbin Reservoir, which he said is “enormous.” Additionally, the Quabbin is inaccessible from main roads in many areas.

The water board also owns and operates the Putnamville Reservoir in Danvers, but since it is springtime water is not being drawn from it right now, Knowlton said. Putnamville Reservoir, much like Wenham Lake, is visible from many surrounding roads, including Locust Street, Lakeview Avenue and Reservoir Drive.

The board has not considered fencing off the water supplies, Knowlton said, since it would be easy for someone to get through a fence. Instead, it makes sure to keep a close eye on the water bodies.

Additionally, the treatment plant constantly monitors the water quality, Knowlton said.

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