Beacon Hill Roll Call: Jan. 1 to Jan. 5, 2024

Several campaigns to put proposed law on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot for voter consideration have cleared the next hurdle. Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office certified that the necessary 74,574 signatures had been filed for several potential ballot questions.

Several campaigns to put proposed law on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot for voter consideration have cleared the next hurdle. Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office certified that the necessary 74,574 signatures had been filed for several potential ballot questions. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

By BOB KATZEN

Published: 01-12-2024 11:51 AM

With today’s edition, we begin coverage of the 2024 Massachusetts legislative session with our weekly Beacon Hill Roll Call report. This feature is a concise compilation of the voting records of local state representatives and senators.

Beacon Hill Roll Call provides an unbiased summary of bills and amendments, arguments from floor debate on both sides of the issue and each legislator’s vote or lack of vote on the matter. This information gives readers an opportunity to monitor their elected officials’ actions on Beacon Hill. Many bills are reported on in their early stages, giving readers the opportunity to contact their legislators and express an opinion prior to the measure being brought up for final action.

The feature “Also Up on Beacon Hill” informs readers of other important matters at the State House.

This week, Beacon Hill Roll Call records local senators’ votes from the week of Jan. 1 to Jan. 5. There were no roll calls in the House last week.

Wheelchair warranty and repairs (S 2541)

The Senate, 39-0, approved and sent to the House a bill that would strengthen consumer protections for wheelchair users. Current state law does not set any timeline for assessing repairs, does not require dealers to offer wheelchairs on loan within a fixed time period and only requires customized wheelchairs to come with express warranties.

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Provisions of the bill include requiring that wheelchair manufacturers, lessors and dealers provide customers with written notification of the warranty for their wheelchairs; increasing the minimum duration for any warranty from one year to two years; mandating that if an in-warranty wheelchair stops functioning, manufacturers, lessors and dealers must assess the wheelchair within three days, provide a temporary wheelchair on loan within four days and cover any other costs to the user; and authorizing the attorney general and consumers to bring legal actions against any violation of provisions protecting wheelchair users from unfair and deceptive business practices relating to the fulfillment of a warranty.

Supporters said wheelchair repairs pose substantial problems for people with physical disabilities. They noted that it is not uncommon for those who use wheelchairs to wait weeks for repairs. This leaves these individuals stranded at home and unable to go to work, school, medical appointments, grocery shopping or elsewhere. This creates a crisis for individuals and families and often exacerbates other health conditions. Existing state law does not set any timeline for assessing repairs or require dealers to offer wheelchairs on loan within a fixed time period.

“Wheelchair users in Massachusetts with broken chairs can wait weeks or months for repairs because the law today provides inadequate consumer protections in a consolidated, uncompetitive market,” said sponsor Sen. John Cronin, D-Fitchburg. “This bill allows wheelchair users to regain their mobility, their independence and their dignity by requiring timely repair service.”

“Today the Senate took action to give individuals who use wheelchairs the protections they deserve,” said Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland. “If a wheelchair breaks down, a user should be able to get it fixed and get back to their daily life as soon as possible, and the commonwealth of Massachusetts should have every user’s back.”

“I’m delighted the Senate took the lead on this highly empowering legislation,” said Sen. Mike Rodrigues, D-Westport, chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “Not only does this bill provide uniformity with neighboring states on wheelchair warranties, but it effectively expedites repair time and mandates a solid reimbursement safety net. It’s a big win for wheelchair users across the commonwealth.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Autism and police (S 2542)

The Senate, 39-0, approved and sent to the House a bill designed to improve interactions between police officers and people with autism spectrum disorder during traffic stops. The measure, dubbed the “Blue Envelope Bill” would create a voluntary program giving people with the disorder the option to be given a special blue envelope that holds the person’s driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance cards. On the outside of the envelope there would be specific instructions for police officers on the driver’s diagnosis, impairments, triggers, emergency contact information and best practices for communicating. The bill is designed to enable the driver to quickly and easily hand the envelope to a police officer during a traffic stop.

“The Blue Envelope Bill will make our commonwealth a safer place for people who are neurodiverse,” said sponsor Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “It moves us closer to equal opportunity and access for people of all abilities.”

“The Blue Envelope Bill would be a game changer for our family and for so many Massachusetts residents,” said Ilyse Levine-Kanji, an Executive Committee member of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts. “Like many people with autism, my 25-year-old son Sam does not have any physical characteristics that indicate he has autism.”

Levine-Kanji continued, “In a stressful situation, where split-second decisions must be made, I’m relieved that a police officer could see a blue envelope in Sam’s car and immediately understand that any unusual behavior or speech pattern is a result of autism. Thus, this bill could dramatically decrease the possibility of a tragic misunderstanding.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Legalize fentanyl test strips (S 2543)

The Senate, 39-0, approved and sent to the House legislation that would legalize the sale, possession and distribution of fentanyl test strips as well as other testing equipment used to identify fentanyl in a drug. The measure includes a “Good Samaritan” provision that exempts from liability “any person who, in good faith, provides, administers or utilizes fentanyl test strips or any testing equipment or devices solely used, intended for use or designed to be used to determine whether a substance contains fentanyl or its analogues.”

Supporters said that fentanyl test strips help prevent overdoses by enabling drug users to determine whether a substance contains fentanyl, the opioid that was present in 93% of fatal overdoses in the first three months of 2023. They said that under current law fentanyl test strips are considered drug paraphernalia — causing police departments and harm reduction organizations that are interested in distributing them to be concerned that the distribution would subject them to criminal or civil liability.

“The idea for this bill came to me from Newton Police Chief John Carmichael,” said sponsor Sen. Cindy Creem, D-Newton. “The department wanted to distribute fentanyl test strips to help prevent overdoses, but they discovered that state law stood in the way of them doing so. As the fentanyl crisis has worsened across the country, a majority of states have already moved to legalize these affordable, lifesaving test strips. It’s time for the commonwealth to do the same. By passing this bill, we will empower police departments and community organizations to distribute fentanyl test strips and save lives.”

“We know two things in Massachusetts as facts: opioids take far too many lives in our state and fentanyl test strips save them,” said Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland. “By voting to legalize fentanyl test strips, the Senate is taking a commonsense action step to save lives in our state — and we know it works.”

“I am proud to report out this bill from the Judiciary Committee,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee. “It represents a commonsense criminal justice reform that will better address substance use challenges.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Also up on Beacon HillID for liquor purchases (H 4131)

The House approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would allow alcohol-serving establishments to accept all out-of-state motor vehicle licenses and Global Entry cards issued by the United States Customs and Border Protection office as valid proof of age and identification.

“As a state that welcomes visitors from across the country to enjoy our museums, sporting events, tourism attractions and other venues, this is a vitally important economic measure that takes the burden off of our small businesses and allows out-of-state visitors to enjoy a drink if they choose,” said House sponsor Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham. “This bill will go a long way in supporting the commonwealth’s businesses as they continue to recover from the pandemic and compete with surrounding states.”

“A constituent brought the issue to me where she couldn’t purchase alcohol with a well-vetted international identification document, and it seemed like an issue where we needed to update the law to make sure it doesn’t stand in the way of everyday commerce,” said Senate sponsor Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville.

Potential 2024 ballot questions

Several campaigns to put proposed law on the Nov. 5, 2024 ballot for voter consideration have cleared the next hurdle. Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office certified that the necessary 74,574 signatures had been filed for several potential ballot questions.

Galvin has sent those questions to the Legislature, which now has until May 1, 2024 to approve the proposed laws. If they are not approved by the Legislature, proponents must gather another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19, 2024, and then the Secretary of State’s Office by July 3, 2024, for the question to appear on the November 2024 ballot.

The proposed laws include ones that would permit the Auditor’s Office to audit the Legislature; increase over five years the minimum wage for tipped workers to the same as the general minimum wage; legalize some psychedelic substances including psilocybin found in mushrooms to treat mental health disorders including major depressive disorder and substance abuse; remove the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam as a high school graduation requirement and instead require students to complete coursework certified by the student’s district as demonstrating mastery of the competencies contained in the state academic standards in math, science and technology and English; and several proposals to change the rights and benefits for on-demand drivers like Uber and Lyft.