Beacon Hill Roll Call: Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 2019

Published: 9/17/2019 6:49:46 PM

There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.

Beacon Hill Roll Call reports on the delay in approving the measure that prohibits drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media. Current state law only bans texting while driving, a threshold that police say is difficult to prove and enforce.

Ban hand-held cellphones (H 3149 and S 2216)

A bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media is still tied up in a conference committee. The House 152 to 0 approved its version of the bill on May 15. The Senate approved a different version on June 6.

A conference committee was appointed by House Speaker Bob DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, on June 10. The committee is charged with hammering out a compromise version of the bill to which a majority of the committee agrees. The compromise measure is sent to the House and Senate for consideration, is approved by both branches and is then sent to the governor for his signature, amendment or veto.

The members of the conference committee are Reps. Bill Straus, D-Mattapoisett; Joe Wagner, D-Chicopee; and Tim Whelan, R-Brewster; and Sens. Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop; William Brownsberger, D-Belmont; and Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg.

Use of a hand-held phones would be permitted in some emergencies but the definition of emergencies differs in each version.

Violators in both versions would be fined $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. Under the House version, a violation would not count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator. The Senate version counts a third and subsequent offense as a surchargeable one. In addition, the Senate version would require second-time offenders to complete a program selected by the registrar of motor vehicles that “encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving.”

Another key difference in the bills is how police officers would track and collect demographic data when they pull drivers over. The data is mainly collected to uncover any bias or discrimination. The House version would require police officers to track only stops that end in a citation issued to a driver. The Senate version calls for tracking of all stops regardless of outcome. Some observers say the question of who would analyze the data is one of the issue holding up the conference committee.

“Every day hands-free legislation is further delayed puts us all at risk,” said Rich Levitan, CEO of TextLess Live More, the chief organization advocating for the bill. “Given the distracted driving epidemic on our roads, we fear it’s only a matter of time before another life is lost in the commonwealth. It is beyond time for Chairs Boncore and Straus to resolve final language issues and get this legislation on Gov. Baker’s desk this month. Further delay is unconscionable.”

Beacon Hill Roll Call asked all six members of the conference committee, the Senate president, the House speaker and a few other legislators to comment on the delay and explain the reason for it. Only three of them answered. And none offered any new information or insight.

“This bill continues to be a top priority of the Massachusetts State Senate, and I am hopeful that it will be completed soon,” Spilka said.

“The Senate’s commitment to safer roadways, for motorists and pedestrians alike, is steadfast,” Boncore said. “The Senate has passed this bill in previous sessions, and I look forward to continuing collaboration with my House colleagues to ensure it becomes law.”

“I’ve been filing this bill since 2004 and it is difficult to come to grips with the number of lives we could have saved if we had acted with decisive action from the start,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, the chief proponent of the bill in the Senate. “During that time we’ve built the consensus that driving while distracted is dangerous; it is not a harmless habit that we should tolerate. My bill passed in the Senate the previous two sessions only to die in the House, and I’m very disappointed that an agreement has not been reached this session. The sooner we pass this legislation, the sooner we begin to prevent the death, injury and damage that distracted driving causes.”

Supporters of the bill say it 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.

Some opponents say that 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 vs. handheld cellphone operation of a motor vehicle are inconclusive at best,” said Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, when the House debated the bill in May. “The real culprit in distracted driving is texting, which was already banned in 2010 but is still at a staggeringly high level. 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.”

Durant is one of the two members of the House who voted against the measure.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Adam Hinds — Yes

Also up on Beacon Hill Gender X (H 3664)

The State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee held a hearing on a proposal that would allow Massachusetts residents to choose the gender-neutral designation “X” in lieu of “male” or “female” on state identifying documents including birth certificates, marriage licenses, driver’s licenses, learner’s permits, identification cards and liquor purchase identification cards. The Senate approved a similar proposal in April. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow a gender-neutral option on driver’s licenses.

“Being non-binary is a real and valid gender identity,” testified 25-year-old Ryley Copans. “We want to be recognized as we are.”

“It’s bad practice and contrary to our security and our values to expect Massachusetts residents to pretend to be someone else or to lie about who they are when they seek state identification and licenses,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst. “Forcing individuals to choose from two options, when we know that for some it will not represent who they are, sanctions dishonesty, promotes stigma and keeps our neighbors invisible. When we take away the opportunity to be our authentic selves, we take away our humanity.”

“If you look at your Massachusetts driver’s license, it lists ‘sex,’ not ‘gender,’” said Massachusetts Family Institute President Andrew Beckwith. “The concept of ‘gender identity’ is based on internal feelings, but sex is binary (male or female) and grounded in biology. And we believe that a state ID should reflect that objective fact.”

“Many Massachusetts residents who do not identify as exclusively male or female are currently forced to carry documents that do not accurately reflect their identity,” said Chris Erchull, a staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). “As residents in more and more states are obtaining identification documents with a gender-neutral “X” marker, it is imperative that the Massachusetts House votes to pass this legislation now, not only because Massachusetts should be a leader in LGBTQ equality, but also to eliminate barriers for people who wish to relocate here from other states.”

The Catholic Action League called the proposed law “a deranged idea, recklessly embraced without regard for societal harm or unpredictable consequences.” Catholic Action League Executive Director C. J. Doyle testified, “Science, reason, common sense, natural law and millennia of human experience all tell us that there are only two biological sexes. The very concept of gender identity is artificial, subjective and potentially open-ended.”

Paid family and medical leave tax

Beginning in January of 2021, most workers in Massachusetts will be eligible to get up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. The program will be funded by taxes paid by employees, employers and the self-employed beginning Oct. 1. The 0.63 percent payroll tax was supposed to be effective July 1 to fund the estimated $1 billion paid family and medical leave program that was signed into law last year. Business and advocacy groups raised concerns about their ability to prepare for the for the new tax by July 1 and the Legislature moved the date to Oct. 1.

The Paid Family and Medical Leave Program is overseen by the Department of Family and Medical Leave. According to the department’s website, the program “provides temporary income replacement to eligible workers who are welcoming a new child into their family, are struck by a serious illness or injury, need to take care of an ill or ailing relative and for certain military considerations.”

The Department of Revenue advises you to get more information on this new tax if you are a business with at least one Massachusetts employee; a business that retains independent contractors; an employee or contractor in Massachusetts; or a sole proprietor or member of an LLC and live in Massachusetts. For more information, go to

Repeal estate/death tax (S 1731)

Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth, has filed a proposal that would repeal Massachusetts’ estate tax, also known as the death tax — a tax on the value of a decedent’s estate before distribution to any beneficiary. Most Republicans are against the tax and coined the name death tax to imply that the government taxes you even after you die. Most Democrats support the tax and call it an estate tax to imply that this tax is only paid by the wealthy.

The first $1 million is exempt from this tax and the tax on anything over $1 million is a graduated one that, according to the Department of Revenue’s website, ranges from 0.8 percent to 16 percent.

Repeal supporters said this regressive tax is unfair and noted that Massachusetts is losing many residents, who move to Florida and other states where this tax does not exist.

Repeal opponents said the tax is a fair one and argued the state cannot afford the revenue loss.

“Massachusetts is one of only 14 states that have adopted an estate tax on top of the federal estate tax,” O’Connor said. “While the threshold for an individual at the federal level is $11.4 million, in Massachusetts it is just $1 million. With real estate assessment values rapidly increasing in the commonwealth, more and more families are being affected by this. I don’t want families that have lived here for decades to have to consider moving elsewhere because of an outdated tax law.”

“I’m against repeal because it would make our tax system less progressive and less adequate,” said Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville. “The estate tax is one of our most progressive: only the top 2 to 3 percent of estates, those with over $1 million in assets after deductions, and not including those where the spouse inherits, pay the estate tax, and it’s a graduated tax. Estates of $1 million pay 0.8 percent. We can’t afford to lose the $350 million to $450 million a year the estate tax brings in. We need to repair and improve our transportation, to give all our children an adequate education, and to pay enough to attract and keep child care and elder care workers into important and fast-growing jobs.”

“As one of only a dozen states in the nation still imposing an estate tax on the heirs of its deceased citizens, not even indexed for inflation since it was imposed in 2001, only Massachusetts and Oregon trigger its imposition at just $1 million of lifetime assets,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, which provided testimony to the committee. “Only Massachusetts reaches back and taxes on the first cent when that million dollar threshold is crossed. Long ago Benjamin Franklin noted, ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. The Massachusetts Legislature, in its insatiable pursuit of revenue, pushes that certainty to the limits and beyond.”

Default on student loans (H 3620)

A bill before the Judiciary Committee would repeal a current law passed in 1990, which created professional licensure consequences for anyone who defaults on their student loan. Under existing law, the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority and the American Student Assistance can request that a borrower’s state-issued professional or occupational certificate, registration or license be suspended, revoked or cancelled for default on educational loans made or administered by either group.

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, did not respond to repeated requests by Beacon Hill Roll Call to comment on her bill.


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