Beacon Hill Roll Call: May 13 to May 17, 2019

Published: 5/21/2019 5:18:11 PM


House 152-2, approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media. The measure allows drivers to use only a hands-free phone but allows the driver to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate the hands-free mode feature. Use of a hand-held phone would be permitted in emergencies including if the vehicle was disabled; medical attention or assistance was required; police, fire or other emergency services were necessary for someone’s personal safety; or a disabled vehicle or an accident was present on a roadway.

Violators would be fined $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. The violation would not count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator.

If the law is approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, police officers would only issue warnings to violators instead of fines until Dec. 31, 2019. The Senate will debate a similar bill on June 6 and supporters are confident that it will be approved by the Senate. Gov. Baker is on record in favor of a ban that was part of a road safety bill he filed in January.

Supporters say that the bill would save lives and prevent accidents. They note that the measure does not ban cellphone use but simply requires the use of hands-free ones. They pointed to accidents, deaths and injuries involving handheld cellphones.

“I am pleased that this bill passed the House and I am cautiously optimistic that the Senate will give its approval and the governor will sign it into law,” said Rep. John Barrett (D-North Adams). “Too many lives have been lost in recent years by distracted drivers.”

“The Senate is ready to finally deliver this to the governor’s desk so that we can end the needless destruction and loss of life on our roadways,” said Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) in a statement to the State House News Service. Montigny, who has filed the bill for 15 years, will take the lead in getting the measure approved in the Senate. Similar legislation has been approved by the Senate in the 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 sessions, but never made it to the governor’s desk.

Some opponents say the restriction is another example of government intrusion into people’s cars and lives. Others note that there are already laws on the books prohibiting driving while distracted.

“Studies on the effectiveness of hands-free versus handheld cellphone operation of a motor vehicle are inconclusive at best,” said Rep. Peter Durant (R-Spencer), one of the two members who voted against the measure. “The real culprit in distracted driving is texting, which was already banned in 2010 but are still at staggeringly high levels. This bill doesn’t solve the problem of distracted driving, and we could have used the money spent in this bill to provide better public awareness of the dangers and consequences of texting and driving.”

The other member who voted against the measure was Rep. David DeCoste (R-Norwell). DeCoste did not respond to repeated attempts by Beacon Hill Roll Call asking why he voted against the bill.

“With widespread cellphone use, a traffic hazard has exploded on the roads of the commonwealth and, frankly, around the country over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), House chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “This legislation makes clear that drivers must keep their hands and eyes on the road and not on cellphones. Cellphone use while driving is a threat to safety not only to the driver but also to others that share the roads with those who choose to use a cellphone while driving. With the passage of this important legislation, I’m hopeful all motorists will focus on driving safely without cellphone distractions.”

“I thought of my constituent Katie Brannelly who had a beautiful life dedicated in service to others,” said Rep.John Rogers (D-Norwood). “She studied child psychology, held three jobs, made the dean’s list and just three weeks prior to her graduation, before fulfilling her promise of going out and changing this world that needed her help with troubled youth, she was struck by a driver who never saw her.”

“I hope and I pray that when this bill becomes law it will cause all of us to stop, to think, and to focus behind the wheel, and prevent families and communities from enduring future tragic loss of life,” Rogers concluded.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes


OPIOID OVERDOSES KILLED 2,033 PEOPLE IN MASSACHUSETTS in 2018 — According to the Department of Public Health (DPH), there were a total of 2,033 confirmed or suspected opioid overdoses in Massachusetts 2018, the last full year recorded. The DPH said fentanyl was present in 89 percent of the 2018 deaths where a toxicology screen took place.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, in deaths where a toxicology screen took place, the percentages of various substances found in the screen include: heroin or likely heroin — 32 percent; cocaine — 39 percent; and benzodiazepines — 40 percent.

“The presence of amphetamines has been increasing since 2017 to approximately 9 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018,” the DPH’s study states. “Since 2014, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths has been decreasing while the presence of fentanyl and cocaine is still trending upward. The presence of prescription drugs in overdose cases decreased from 2014 through 2016 and has remained stable since then.”

“While we remain encouraged that opioid-related overdose deaths have declined over the last two years, the epidemic continues to present very real challenges across Massachusetts that are made worse by the presence of fentanyl, cocaine and amphetamines,” Gov. Baker said in a statement.

TEACH DOCTORS ABOUT EATING DISORDERS (H 250) — The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee held a hearing on a measure that would require all doctors and physician assistants to complete a one-hour online course on the early recognition of eating disorders. The proposal also prohibits a hospital from granting or renewing professional privileges to work at the hospital to a physician or physician assistant who has not completed the training.

“I am very pleased with this bill,” said sponsor Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich). “Eating disorders are more common than the public eye can see, which is why I believe this is a matter that should be taken seriously by our community physicians to assure safety for our citizens.”

AG CAN FILE CIVIL SUIT FOR WAGE VIOLATIONS (H 1610) — The Labor and Workforce Development Committee heard testimony at a hearing on a bill that would allow the attorney general to file a civil suit for injunctive relief, damages or lost wages and benefits for the employee to receive triple damages if the suit is successful. Currently, the attorney general can only give either a civil citation or file a criminal complaint.

Supporters said the bill would give the attorney general and workers the power to hold accountable employers who commit wage theft or look the other way when it is going on. Wage theft is the practice of not paying employees what they’re owed.

Sen. Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington), said that rates of substance use disorder are higher among construction workers.

“Exacerbate that by not getting paid, exacerbate that by working for subcontractors who don’t pay benefits to their employees … exacerbate that when people underpay you or don’t classify you correctly,” Friedman said. “So, we’re asking them to do a job, to build all of our buildings and our schools, and we’re asking them to come to work every day, but we’re not going to ensure that they get paid, and that is just fundamentally, deeply unfair.”

Opponents said the bill contributes to the anti-business reputation of the Bay State. They said allowing triple damages goes too far and takes away all discretion from judges despite the circumstances of the case.

THE BAY STATE REMAINS IN EIGHTH PLACE IN NEW U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT RANKING OF BEST STATES — Massachusetts, ranked No. 1 in 2017, plummeted to No. 8 in 2018 and held steady in eighth place for 2019.

The Bay State rankings include No. 1 in education, No. 2 in health care, No. 4 in crimes and corrections, No. 7 in the economy and near the bottom of the list at No. 44 in infrastructure.

“Today, the fields of education and health services employ the most people in Massachusetts,” the report states. “Another top industry is manufacturing, especially computer and electronic products. Massachusetts’ technology sector has flourished in recent years and is among the most concentrated in the nation.”

$1,500 TAX CREDIT FOR FAMILY CAREGIVERS (S 702) — The Health Care Financing Committee heard testimony on a bill giving up to a $1,500 tax credit to reimburse a family member who spends his or her own money to care for an ailing relative. Expenses covered include the improvement or alteration to the caregiver’s primary residence to accommodate the relative, equipment that is necessary to assist the relative in carrying out one or more activities of daily living, the hiring of a home care aide or personal care attendant, respite care, adult day health, transportation, legal and financial services and assistive technology.

The family caregiver claiming the credit must be over the age of 18 and have a Massachusetts adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 for an individual and less than $150,000 for a couple.

Supporters say this will save some money for caregivers. They note that Massachusetts has more than 800,000 unpaid family caregivers who are helping an aging parent or other loved one to live independently in their own homes. They argue that many of these caregivers have a regular full- or part-time job and are overwhelmed by their caregiver duties. They note that a study from 2015 concluded that in Massachusetts, family caregivers provided 786 million hours of unpaid care valued at an estimated $11.6 billion annually.

“This would go a long way in helping them, would enable more of our seniors and those with disabilities to remain at home where they want to be when they want to age with dignity in the community, (and) keep them out of more restrictive care, which as you know is much more expensive,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester). “Even though it will cost the state some money for the credit, it actually, overall, could be a cost saver for us.”

SMOKING CESSATION PROGRAMS FOR MASSHEALTH RECIPIENTS (H 1129, S 704) — The Health Care Financing Committee’s agenda also included a hearing on proposals requiring the state to cover the expenses of programs for smoking and tobacco use cessation treatment and information by people on MassHealth — the state’s Medicaid program that provides health care for low-income and disabled persons.

Rep. Christine Barber (D-Somerville), House sponsor of the proposal, said she wants to expand the commonwealth’s commitment to assisting people to stop smoking.

“Right now, health plans under MassHealth provide tobacco cessation coverage, but we want to put this requirement into law to make sure it continues,” Barber said. “In addition, the bill would add behavioral health counselors and dentists, providers who see a lot of patients who use tobacco, as people who can provide cessation services. With the rapid increase in tobacco use through vaping and other products, I want to ensure that Massachusetts supports people who want to quit.”

“Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and illness in the commonwealth and is responsible for more than $4 billion in health care costs annually,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate sponsor of the proposal. “It is vital that we provide comprehensive cessation benefits through all insurance plans, so that tobacco users can get help quitting. This legislation will strengthen existing MassHealth tobacco cessation benefits.”

CHILD CARE FOR CANDIDATES FOR PUBLIC OFFICE (639) — The Election Laws Committee held a hearing on a bill allowing a candidate for public office to use campaign funds for child care while the candidate is campaigning on his or her own behalf or attending events directly related to his or her campaign. The House gave initial approval to the proposal in the 2017-2018 session, but the bill died in the committee on Bills in Third Reading.

Under current law, candidates are prohibited from using campaign funds for their personal use. The state’s Office of Campaign and Finance has classified child care while performing campaign duties as a personal expense rather than a campaign expense.

“If we believe representation matters in public office, then we need to break down barriers to entry for underrepresented groups,” said Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge), co-sponsor of the measure. “That’s why I’m proud to be working with Sen. Jehlen, Rep. Meschino, and several other colleagues to make child care an allowable campaign expense, a concept that was recently adopted by the Federal Election Commission for candidates on the federal level.”

“We should strive for more socio-economic, gender and inter-generational diversity across elected offices in Massachusetts,” said co-sponsor Rep. Joan Meschino (D-Hull). “This bill provides an important mechanism to encourage more representative candidate pools by building equity into our election system.”

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