BOSTON — A bill designed to expand and preserve affordable housing in Massachusetts is making its way through the Statehouse.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing has advanced a five-year, $1.4 billion housing bond bill. The legislation would provide additional authorization for housing programs for low-income and moderate-income residents across the state.
The bill includes $500 million to help modernize existing public housing developments and $80 million in grants and loans for a fund that provides supportive housing for the homeless, victims of domestic violence, seniors, veterans and individuals recovering from substance abuse.
Another $55 million in the bill would help blind and severely disabled homeowners modify their homes to avoid placement in more costly institutional settings such as nursing homes.
The bill would also create an “Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund” designed to provide capital financing for facilities that offer early childhood education for high needs children.
State Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, one of the sponsors of the bill, said in a written statement that it will “ensure that we continue to invest in a pipeline of housing initiatives and programs” to meet the state’s housing needs.
Another of the bill’s sponsors, Boston Democratic state Rep. Kevin Honan, in the same statement called the bill “a big step toward ensuring that necessary capital improvements will be made to maintain the state’s public and affordable housing stock.”
The bill also extends the state’s low income housing tax credit at $20 million annually for five more years.
The bill now heads to House and Senate lawmakers for debate.
Boxborough’s selectmen are expected to consider Monday night whether to put a quick end to plans by the Cordish Cos. to bring a slot machine parlor and boutique hotel to town, or to allow the Maryland casino developer to draft a more detailed proposal before making a decision.
The company quietly “put its toes in the local water” at a Board of Selectmen’s meeting nearly three weeks ago, when it presented preliminary plans to turn the Holiday Inn on Interstate 495 into a boutique hotel, slots parlor with as many as 1,250 machines, and a restaurant and entertainment complex, according to chairman Leslie Fox.
“We asked people in town to let us know what they think, whether this should move forward,” Fox said.
Since then, the board’s e-mail box has been full, with Fox estimating that 90 to 95 percent of those writing are opposed to having slot machines in this quintessential New England small town.
“It’s ranged pretty much from ‘Are you out of your minds?’ to ‘Thank you for asking,’ ” he said.
And, while residents and officials in Boxborough and surrounding towns have voiced grave doubts about the proposal, one Boxborough selectman, Frank Powers, though still undecided, wonders whether it might be worth learning more about what the developer is offering.
“This is an emotional issue for a lot of people,” he said. “But the question at this point is not, ‘Should we build this?’ — the question is, ‘Should we investigate this and listen to what they have to say?’”
Powers said he has done his own research and found that property values don’t necessarily drop around these kinds of developments, and crime doesn’t always go up.
“I’m not arguing the case for why we should’’ proceed with the project, he said, “I’m not arguing that at all, but personally, at this point I’m leaning toward getting more information.”
Joe Weinberg, managing partner at Cordish, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that the company believes a majority of residents support exploring the redevelopment project’s benefits, which he said include a “significant increase in revenues to the town,” and the addition of 1,500 construction jobs and 750 permanent job to the local economy.
“We’ve heard repeatedly from town residents they believe, at a minimum, the town should conduct a thorough review of the project, negotiate a formal host community agreement, then allow all of the citizens to exercise their right to make the final decision in the state mandated local referendum,” he wrote.
In addition, Weinberg wrote, the company has committed to hosting several open houses at the property over the next several months, following up on one that was held at the property last week.
“We received a very positive reception from a majority of town residents who visited our open house,” he wrote.
At the same time, while some residents are e-mailing selectmen, others are e-mailing each other in an effort to get organized in case they need to mobilize in opposition should the plans be allowed to move forward.
“We just don’t want the town to get into this kind of business,” said Hugh Fortmiller, who is among the group of opponents. Casino developers “have no models of a small town like ours taking on this kind of venture. . . It would change the whole character of our town.”
The 2011 law creating the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allows the agency to award up to three regional casino licenses and one slots-only license statewide. Cordish is one of four companies competing for the slots parlor license.
Before the gaming licenses are approved, however, there is a lengthy process that gives local executive boards the authority to reject proposals outright, or enter into a negotiated agreement with developers that would likely include paying for any negative impacts. If an agreement is reached, the community’s residents would then have to endorse it in a general election before the developer’s application would be considered by the state commission.
While the law gives host communities the power to say no, surrounding communities that would be affected could receive some compensation, but have no say in whether it is built.
And in Boxborough’s case, officials in the bordering towns of Acton, Harvard, and Stow said they had no idea this plan was even being proposed.
“I’m feeling a little blindsided,” said Harvard’s Board of Selectmen chairwoman, Lucy B. Wallace, who like many of the other officials contacted first heard of the proposal by reading about it in the Globe.
“The news has just started bubbling up around town, but I can’t imagine it is something the town would embrace,” she said, adding that she had already received one call in opposition to allowing slot machines so close to Harvard.
She said among her concerns would be “drunk drivers leaving there and driving on our winding little roads.”
In Acton, Board of Selectmen chairwoman Janet K. Adachi was also surprised by the news, and while she hadn’t had time to confer with her board, she said she was personally opposed to putting this type of development at the Holiday Inn site.
Aside from an array of other issues that would have to be studied, Adachi said, traffic along already busy Massachusetts Avenue (Route 111) would pose an obvious stumbling block to a proposal of this size.
“I’m not going to opine about what Boxborough should do, but I don’t think we would want to have this kind of a business or operation in our town,” she said.
Even state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Democrat from Acton who also represents Boxborough, said he had known nothing about Cordish’s plans before reading the news reports.
While stressing the decision about whether to move forward rests with the people of Boxborough, Eldridge said he would oppose the plans.
“At the state level I led the fight in the Senate against the casino bill,” he said. “This is a poor form of economic development.”
Eldridge said traffic, crime, low-paying jobs, the toll that casino developments take on small businesses in the area, and the drain that gambling takes on social programs are all things Boxborough would need to consider.
“While the developer paints a rosy picture of what benefits the project could bring, I can talk about the opposite side,” he said. “I think that is the most critical role I could play.”
The Board of Selectmen is expected to discuss the issue during a meeting starting at 6 p.m. Monday in the Blanchard Memorial School gymnasium . The meeting will adjourn no later than 6:45 p.m., officials said, in order not to conflict with the start of annual Town Meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the school gym.
Courts, legislators look to rein in a practice they say causes behavioral problems but state prison officials call an essential tool
By Milton J. Valencia
Neil Miller is still haunted by the seclusion, the disorientation, the darkness.
During his more than 10 years as a prisoner, Miller spent weeks, months, and once even two years in solitary confinement units, where inmates are kept for as many as 23 hours a day.
“It’s a mental game in there,” Miller, now 46, said recently, still reflecting the anger and acting out that repeatedly got him sent to what prisoners call “the hole.” “You’re fighting with your own sanity, trying to keep yourself together.”
He was eventually vindicated by new DNA evidence and freed — but not before the time spent alone in a cell had taken its toll.
The use of segregation units — where roughly 500 of the state’s 11,000 prisoners are held in Massachusetts on any given day — has come under increased scrutiny over the last year, with state and federal court rulings limiting their use. State legislators have proposed regulating them further.
The Department of Correction defends what it calls special management units, saying they are needed to keep unruly inmates in order.
“We have to be realistic when we’re running these prisons … Segregation is a necessary tool in a prison environment,” said Luis S. Spencer, the department’s commissioner of correction.
The growing divide over their use in Massachusetts mirrors a national trend. Prisoner-rights advocates, legislators, and even corrections commissioners in other states are increasingly denouncing the use of solitary confinement, while others defend the practice as an essential part of prison management.
“There really is a seismic shift going on in both the public attitude and corrections practice,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, which has researched the effects of segregation. “I think there has been a growing awareness of the extremely damaging effects of solitary confinement.”
Massachusetts officials maintain that prisoners are kept in the units only as long as needed and that department staff check their records multiple times a week to determine whether it is time to return them to the larger prison population.
But the protocol is often contradicted by the department’s own data. Recent data compiled by the Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Massachusetts prisoners advocate group, show that inmates in some short-term units are being held far longer than initially intended.
Inmates at the units at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley had been held an average of 139 days at one point in September 2012. One prisoner had been there for 662 days.
At MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole, inmates had been in the specialized management units an average 114 days, with one inmate having been there for 430 days.
A Globe review of one day in early March found that 492 of 619 segregation units in prisons across the state were filled. The department’s long-term disciplinary segregation unit in Walpole was at capacity, with 125 prisoners.
“We have to make sure people don’t stay any longer than they need to be, it shouldn’t be long-term, and there should be guidelines on what [an inmate] has to do to get out of there,” said Leslie Walker, of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “It’s literally lock them up and throw away the key — at a very expensive cost.”
The use of segregation is as old as the American judicial system. Though the units differ from one facility to the next, prisoners in a typical solitary confinement-like setting are locked in a cell for all but an hour a day; during that time they are allowed to exercise or shower.
Food is brought to them. They have a pad and pen, though on rare occasions they may have a radio or television. For the most part, they are by themselves.
In Massachusetts, prisoners can be sent to the units for a variety of reasons. In “administrative segregation,” inmates are held in the units until the department can determine a safe place for them.
Inmates involved in fights or other infractions can be sentenced to short-term “disciplinary segregation” for up to 15 days, though the sentence can be increased for multiple infractions.
Also, the department has a 125-bed Department Disciplinary Unit in Walpole, where prisoners can be sentenced to solitary confinement cells for up to 10 years for serious infractions. Miller was sent there for repeated fights with corrections officers.
State Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, who has two state prisons in his district, sponsored a bill recently that would significantly limit the use of solitary confinement to only the most necessary occasions.
The Department of Correction would then have to demonstrate the need for the continuing placement of the inmate in the unit and would have to offer structuring programs and mental health examinations. The inmate would have opportunities to challenge the segregation.
“There’s very little review of the prisoners put into solitary confinement, and we need proper oversight over what I believe is cruel and unusual punishment,” Eldridge said.
As recently as November, the courts have affirmed that segregation constitutes a punishment, even if an inmate was being placed there for his own protection. In that case, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the rights of an inmate who had been in segregation for 10 months.
Even nationally, the US Bureau of Prisons agreed in February to conduct for the first time a comprehensive assessment of its use of solitary confinement, following a congressional hearing last year on the human rights and fiscal and public safety implications of the units.
“I think over the past year, there’s been a lot more scrutiny and discussion over, ‘is this the proper way to treat human beings,’ ” Eldridge said.
Studies have increasingly shown that prisoners’ mental illness — often an undetected, underlying factor in behavior problems — worsens in solitary confinement settings. Advocates speak anecdotally of inmates trying to keep themselves sane by writing on toilet paper, or talking to birds.
Prisoners with no history of mental illness can develop one in the units, government and academic studies have found. And prison officials are finding that the costs of running solitary confinement units are sometimes outpacing the associated benefits of their use.
Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who has conducted research on the units here and nationwide and who has testified at trials as an expert on prisoner segregation, said the lack of stimulation within the units can create or exacerbate a prisoner’s health problems, leading in some cases to delirium, which often goes untreated.
“You end up in a vicious cycle,” said Grassian. “What becomes very clear is solitary confinement is very, very toxic to anyone, and the people who end up there are typically the people who are least capable of tolerating it.”
Recognizing the effects of long-term segregation, a federal judge last year ordered the state Department of Correction to maintain alternatives to solitary confinement for inmates who were diagnosed with a certain classification of mental illness, part of a settlement the department reached with prisoner advocate groups following an alarming number of prisoner suicides.
By all accounts, the new units have been successful: New data show that since the 29 units were created, 82 percent of the inmates who were sent there did not engage in behavior necessitating the use of force following their release; 94 percent did not assault a staff member; 67 percent did not engage in a violent action toward another inmate; 30 percent incurred no disciplinary report. Those numbers reflect improvement over the behavior of inmates who did not go through the program.
“These are alternatives to segregation,” said Larry Weiner, the Department of Correction’s assistant deputy commissioner of clinical services. “We gauge what their mental health needs are, and we try to classify them according to their mental health needs.”
Beyond the 29 units, however, Massachusetts has been more reticent in creating similar programs for inmates who do not meet the mental illness threshold the state has set, even though the inmates may have underlying behavioral problems that have not been addressed.
Spencer, while maintaining that the segregation units remain an important tool, said he would explore other programs if state resources would allow.
A Globe review found that other states have been increasingly creating widespread alternatives to segregation, even for inmates who do not have a classified mental illness, by providing inmates with programs outside the cell to improve their behavior.
Mississippi, for instance, reduced the number of prisoners in segregation by 75 percent, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in violence. In Illinois, officials last year closed a super-maximum-security prison, saying it was needless and would save costs.
“You need to look at how people are getting into segregation,” said Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections and a former superintendent at the prison in Walpole who has been acclaimed for reforms in his department.
For inmates who have no history of mental illness, the Maine department works to resolve behavioral problems by offering enhanced education, job training, or even anger management programs — any alternative to housing prisoners in a cell for 23 days with no outside communication.
“We try to see if we can develop an individual treatment for the prisoner,” Ponte said, acknowledging that, for years, “You’d have an inmate in segregation for 30 months, on a basic write-up.”
Jose Bou, 37, of Springfield, a former prisoner, said he saw firsthand how a solitary confinement-like setting could be counterproductive. A decade ago, he was sent to a maximum-security prison because he was facing a lengthy sentence under mandatory guidelines for drug convictions, and he was placed in a cell for 21 hours a day.
“It was segregation, and isolation, a different world,” he said. “When they open those doors, that anxiety, you can cut it with a knife. It’s like a balloon that’s ready to pop.”
Later, he was housed in a minimum-security prison in Norfolk, where he was able to attend college classes and earn a degree. Today, he works as a youth counselor in Springfield.
“Had I not gone to Norfolk, who knows the type of person I would be in society,” he said.
Miller, who spent far more time in solitary confinement, including at the disciplinary unit in Walpole, said he was not so lucky.
He was not supposed to be in jail in the first place. At 23 years old, he was sentenced to 25 to 45 years for the rape of an Emerson College student in 1989. It was not until 2000 that DNA evidence confirmed his innocence and he was released.
He acknowledges he was angry, leading to repeated fights with corrections officers and other inmates that resulted in his segregation. But he never recovered, either, he said, and still suffers from anger and drug and alcohol abuse.
“I was a loner in there,” he said recently. “I wouldn’t say I’m better. People come out a different way, you’re not going to come out the same way. It’s just too much separation, seclusion, for anybody to have to bear.”
Given their many environmental drawbacks, plastic bags are on the way out in America. Massachusetts can hasten that day by becoming the first state to ban the use of plastic bags at large retail stores.
Lawmakers on the joint Environmental, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee on Monday advanced legislation banning the bags at retail stores larger than 4,000 square feet. Plastic bags are essentially forever, and they pack landfills, clutter streets and defile waterways. They are a legitimate danger to coastlines, as washed up plastic bags can kill seals, turtles and other marine creatures that consume them or are caught in them.
Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, made reference Tuesday to the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a floating dump created by manmade products, many of them plastic bags. Not surprisingly, Manchester-by-the-Sea is one of two Massachusetts communities to ban plastic bags (Brookline is the other), and Nantucket Island also has banned them.
According to Roxanne Zak of the Sierra Club, speaking to State House News Service, only 5 percent of the more than 1 billion plastic bags thrown away by Americans are recycled annually. Removing the resin in plastic bags makes it expensive to recycle them, as does the food waste that tends to cling to them. While paper bags are preferable, their use should be reduced and can be if shoppers bring their reusable shopping bags with them.
The legislation exempts small retailers and the bags grocery stores and bakeries use to avoid creating a hardship for businesses competing with massive chains, but ideally they will discontinue the use of the bags before it becomes necessary at some future date to expand the legislation. Like too many products created for the sake of convenience, plastic bags are useful for a few moments before becoming eyesores and threats to marine life for centuries. The Legislature should approve their ban this session and Governor Patrick should sign the ban into law.
Massachusetts could become the first state to ban plastic bag use at large retail stores, part of an effort to prevent litter from harming marine animals and to reduce waste scattered through streets and stuck in tree branches.
Lawmakers on the joint Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Committee advanced the two bills, a House version and a Senate version, by voting favorably Monday, immediately following a hearing on the issue. The bills would ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores larger than 4,000 square feet. The ban would exempt smaller retail stores, as well as the produce and bakery bags used inside grocery stores.
Representative Lori Ehrlich, Democrat of Marblehead, who sponsored the House bill, said society’s disposable culture “seems to be catching up with us.” Plastic bags make up 10 percent of the debris that washes up on the shore, she said.
“Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute the oceans for hundreds of years,” Ehrlich said.
Hundreds of communities across the country have banned the bags. The most recent to do so in Massachusetts are Brookline and Manchester-by-the-Sea.
‘Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute the oceans for hundreds of years.’
There have been no statewide bans in the United States, although Hawaii has a de facto ban since all of its four counties now prohibit nonbiodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags that are not at least 40 percent recycled.
Similar legislation was recommended by Massachusetts lawmakers on the Environment Committee last session, but it never surfaced for a vote in the House. Representative Anne Gobi, Democrat of Spencer, and Senator Marc Pacheco, Democrat of Taunton, who chair the committee, said that with more communities instituting bans, it makes sense for the state to take action, rather than have different regulations in each community.
“I think there is a growing movement across society,” Pacheco said after the hearing.
No one from the plastic bag industry testified against the bills.
Other states are considering similar bans, including Rhode Island.
Environmentalists said the bags are a danger to the state’s coastlines and kill sea turtles, whales, seals, and other marine wildlife that swallow plastic or are strangled by the bags.
Americans throw away more than 1 billion plastic bags a year, with less than 5 percent recycled, said Roxanne Zak of the Sierra Club. “They are creating an environmental crisis for us here, and in the whole world, not just the United States.”
The bags, which take hundreds of years to decompose, end up in trees or storm drains and eventually wind up in waterways, she said.
Ehrlich’s bill makes an exception for certain biodegradable plastic bags.
Recycling does not solve the problem, environmentalists argued. In most cases, the resin in plastic bags can only be used once, and recycling them is costly.
Approximately half the bags are rejected for recycling because they are contaminated by food waste, say environments.lists.
Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill, said plastic bag litter creates a blight on communities and damages oceans, pointing to the debris floating in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.
BOSTON– Legislation raising gas, tobacco and business taxes in Massachusetts by $500 million and eventually dedicating up to $800 million a year in new revenues for transportation cleared the Senate 30 to 5 during a rare Saturday session.
With the absence of the contingent of media and lobbyists that would normally be attracted to a debate on a tax bill, Senate President Therese Murray led the charge to pass the tax bill, presiding as the Senate roared through more than 100 amendments to the legislation before approving it with all but two Democratic votes. Senators said differences over amendments had been talked through during a long private caucus.
Gov. Deval Patrick, who chastised the House for a similar tax bill that he vowed to veto, had more congratulatory words for the Senate following the final vote a few minutes before 8 p.m.
“Experts agree that we need approximately $1 billion more a year — in addition to further operating efficiencies — to give our citizens a safe, functional, modern transportation system to keep pace with a growing economy,” Patrick said in a statement. “Today’s Senate bill is a significant step in that direction and I commend them for their work.”
Supporters of the bill said it would prevent a second major MBTA fare hike in as many years, deliver funds to address regional transportation needs and expedite construction projects, and over three years end the longstanding practice of paying about 1,900 state transportation employees with borrowed funds.
Critics of the bill said the Patrick administration was failing to meet cost saving benchmarks under a 2009 transportation reform law and argued the legislation would further burden taxpayers by pulling more of their money into a transportation system that they said is rife with problems and inefficiencies. Without reforms, they said, the new revenues will not be enough to keep up with MBTA spending patterns.
The push to pass the bill, which cleared the House just before midnight Monday on a 97-55 vote, underscored the pressure that Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo are under since the House has already proposed a budget spending revenues from the still unapproved tax hikes and the Senate plans to do the same in May. Differences in the House and Senate tax bill remain to be ironed out by the branches.
The House bill fell just short of the vote required to override a potential veto. The resounding vote in the Senate well cleared the two-thirds threshold required.
After Patrick threatened to veto the original bill offered by DeLeo and Murray, saying it didn’t provide enough new revenues to meet transportation system needs, the Senate pulled money from other areas of state government into the bill to bolster planned new revenues closer to the $1 billion sought by Patrick, who spoke favorably about the Senate plan late this week.
On the tax front, the House and Senate bills raise new revenue from a $1 per pack increase in the cigarette tax and increases on cigar and smokeless tobacco products, new sales taxes on computer design services and software modifications, the removal of a tax exemption for utilities, and a three-cent increase in the gas tax, which would also be indexed to inflation under the legislation (S 1766).
A contingent of liberal senators attempted to include a trigger that would raise the gas tax an additional three cents if projected revenue falls short in 2015, but that vote garnered the support of only 10 members.
“The rest of the body was very careful in how much they wanted to raise, and how much they wanted to tax,” Murray told reporters after the final vote. Asked how it would match up with the House version, Murray said, “It’s the same framework as the House, for taxes, and we just did other revenues that we moved over from other accounts, so I’m hoping that the House will look on this favorably. Hey, the House did the heavy lifting first, and they are our partners, and hopefully the governor will be our partner in this also.”
During a speech in opposition to the gas tax trigger, applause erupted from the gallery, and Murray directed court officers to clear the crowd, during which time “Don’t tread on me” flags were displayed and criticism rained down on the senators as some chanted “No new taxes.”
On her way out, a woman wagged her finger at the chamber below and said, “Think about your children and your grandchildren when you take these votes, you idiots.”
“You might not have seen what was going on, but we were getting Nazi salutes from the people in the corner and some really vulgar language before they disrupted,” Murray told reporters afterwards.
Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) enabling state officials to start discussing with the federal government the idea of establishing tolls on the state’s borders, won approval by a 19 to 15 margin, with some senators who represent border areas saying tolls would hurt their constituents.
Spilka had said that removing increases in current tolls from the formula the Legislature is using to move the transportation department toward more fiscal self-sufficiency was an essential condition to win her vote on the bill. That amendment passed on a voice vote after the Senate voted down on a voice vote a Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) further amendment that would have also exempted fares for MBTA riders.
“So we can have perpetual gas tax increases, but we can’t look at tolls,” said Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth).
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) said the bill also makes $160 million in new tax revenues available to spend in the fiscal 2014 budget he plans to roll out next month. The House budget plan unveiled on Wednesday steers some of those new revenues to education and local aid.
Hedlund said reforms included in a 2009 law were intended to produce $6.5 billion in savings over 20 years, but so far had delivered only $500 million. Of that, Hedlund said, $320 million was attributable to ending interest rate swap practices that were not a focus of the 2009 law.
“Obviously we have discarded the concept of reform before revenue,” said Hedlund.
Rafael Mares, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said that the final Senate version devoted more money to transportation than what Senate Ways and Means had proposed by indexing a 2.5-cent-per-gallon underground storage tank gas tax to inflation, and devoting those revenues to transportation.
On Friday night, before some changes were made to the bill in session, Mares calculated that the average amount of money over five years designated for transportation in the Senate bill was $602 million, compared to $504 million in the House plan and $858 million in the governor’s plan.
Kristina Egan, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said the roughly $800 million in transportation revenues the Senate projected to raise by 2018 is “optimistic,” and hoped the bill would be modified to include more gas-tax hikes before reaching the governor.
Six of the more liberal members of the Senate, who all supported the final bill, praised the process and signaled that if substantially changed it would lose their support.
“Through both the work of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the amendment process, the transportation finance bill passed by the Senate today reaches a level of revenue that allows for meaningful investments in a fiscally-sound, 21st century transportation system. It is for this reason that we vote yes on this bill today,” the six senators wrote in a joint-statement. “We look forward to the bill continuing to the joint House-Senate conference committee. Should the bill be reported out of the conference committee having lost the revenue gains we made, it will also lose our support.”
“There’s definitely more money in this bill,” Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone told the News Service. “I appreciate the work the House did. A week before the House bill, we were at zero. We went from zero to a half a billion. While I appreciate that work it wasn’t enough… This is a huge step forward in that direction.”
Curtatone said he was hopeful that the revenue would be enough to enable matching federal funds for the Green Line Extension to his city, and said it would provide a needed investment for transportation through the whole state.
Among amendments adopted by the Senate were proposals to enable transportation agencies to collect more property taxes from private parties using public land, to require better reporting by the MBTA on its capital projects, and requiring the MBTA to gather information from 23 companies that opted against bidding on the commuter rail operations contract after submitting statements of interest.
Among the amendments rejected by the Senate were calls for a larger gas tax hike, for universities to play a greater role in funding transportation through student pass programs, and to eliminate the indexing of the gas tax to inflation. While Hedlund argued against locking the state into incremental gas tax hikes, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas McGee said the gas tax would be 9 cents higher per gallon if an indexing measure had been adopted in 1991, with each penny of tax worth $32 million.
Sen. Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), in a floor speech highly critical of the MBTA and calling for a long menu of reforms, came up short in his bid to prevent the gas tax hike from taking effect until a task force recommended reforms and the Legislature adopted them. His amendment failed 7-24.
During debate, Murray said a proposal calling on the MBTA to contract with taxi companies to deliver RIDE services at lower costs would be dealt with by the Senate in separate legislation. An amendment pushing that reform was offered by Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) but was withdrawn.
A Republican alternative, which Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said would include potential new revenues from an overhaul of how taxi medallions are administered, fell along party lines with Hedlund, Tarr and the only other Republican in the chamber, Sen. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham) supporting it.
The six senators who said they would not support a final bill with less revenue were Chang-Diaz, Jehlen, Katherine Clark (D-Melrose), Ken Donnelly (D-Arlington), Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) and Dan Wolf (D-Barnstable).
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 8, 2013……Hoping to build on recent successes, immigrants’ rights activists rallied a packed Gardner Auditorium Monday with talk of a future with more limited enforcement of immigration law and more opportunities for those who are living in the state without the proper immigration status.
“Many legislators have your back, are standing with you, not only for federal immigration reform but for state as well,” state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) told the crowd.
While lawmakers and advocates laid out goals for reform, former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas spoke about his experience since the age of 16 when he learned his green card was “fake.”
A native of the Philippines who arrived in the United States as a child and wrote about his experience in the New York Times Magazine in 2011, Vargas said attitudes should change so that people like him are not seen as “criminals and foreigners” but as productive members of American society.
“I am probably the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America,” said Vargas, noting he has spent two years publicly proclaiming his immigration status. He said, “I am not among one of the 1.5 million immigrants… who have been deported in the past four years.”
While much of the nation’s focus has been on Washington D.C.’s inability to agree on a comprehensive set of immigration law reforms, Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she sees glints of hope.
“The tide is turning my friends,” said Millona, noting that the Associated Press had dropped the term “illegal immigrant,” that President Barack Obama had deferred enforcement action on certain immigrants who arrived as children, and the state Legislature passed protections for temporary workers last year.
Millona and Eldridge both laid out an agenda that includes driver’s licenses for people who don’t have valid immigration documents, enshrining into law Gov. Deval Patrick’s executive decision to allow in-state tuition rates for certain undocumented immigrants, and legislation that would limit the cooperation of local law enforcement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We need to drive, because like you, we need to go to work,” said Vargas, who said his driver’s license had been taken away.
Treasurer Steven Grossman, who also backed codifying in-state tuition, roused the crowd with a declaration about the shared history of many Americans.
“Let’s send a message to every one of the 6.6 million people who live in Massachusetts: We are all immigrants,” Grossman said.
Boston — Describing the housing market as “more stable” since the height of the foreclosure crisis, the Patrick administration’s top housing official on Thursday asked lawmakers to support a four-year $567 million spending program that he said will both create affordable housing and jobs.
“The construction of affordable housing leads to direct jobs and we have created 17,000 jobs through our programs since 2007,” said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for housing and economic development.
Gornstein testified Thursday before the Joint Committee on Housing at a hearing on Gov. Deval Patrick’s housing bond bill. The committee was also taking testimony on a similar five-year, $1 billion housing bond bill filed by the committee’s chairmen, Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Boston).
The administration’s bill also assumes that it will be able to spend the nearly $500 million in unspent affordable housing authorizations over the next several years. The Eldridge-Honan bill cancels previous unspent authorizations and outlines a new $1 billion plan.
One of the major differences between the administration’s bill and the Eldridge-Honan bill is a new $45 million Early Education and Out of School Time capital fund that the two lawmakers have proposed to support building new facilities and modernizing existing child care facilities catering to low-income children.
“I am pleased that the Joint Committee on Housing has recognized the importance of quality child care facilities in creating healthy and vibrant neighborhoods,” said Leo Delaney, president of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.
Gornstein said he has not spoken to Patrick about the proposed child care fund, but expressed some concern that capital spending on the education program from the DHCD budget would crowd out available resources for housing. He said it might be better for the program to be included under another secretariat’s bond cap.
Roger Herzog, executive director of the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, called the child care fund a “critically important residential service to achieving financial independence” for low-income families.
Clark Ziegler, director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, said economic recovery has not alleviated the need for new affordable housing, citing Census data that showed 160,000 “extremely low-income” families in Massachusetts unable to find housing through the private market.
“The need has never been greater, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Ziegler told lawmakers.
He also lent his support to maintaining the $20 million authorization for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a program currently under review as part of the Patrick administration’s overhaul of tax expenditures and one scheduled to decrease to $10 million.
Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, testified to the need for affordable housing, particularly in communities like Somerville. “One of the unfortunate ways Massachusetts is leading the nation is the gap between its richer and poorer residents,” Provost said.
Provost said the foreclosure crisis left many former market rate units “vacant and deteriorating” and called Attorney General Martha Coakley’s receivership programs for foreclosed property a good idea but a “glacially slow process” that leaves little option in most cases but to gut the properties and covert homes into high-end condominiums.
“We need to be producing housing which is affordable to people who work and raise families, not just the very wealthy who happen to come to our communities. God bless their success, but we need something besides this increasingly competitive market,” Provost said.
BOSTON — State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, joined U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern last Thursday for a “People’s Rights” tour in Boston and Worcester to show support for two new constitutional amendments filed by Rep. McGovern to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case and call for an end to corporate political spending.
“When corporate dollars influence politics, the American people don’t have a place at the table to express their principles and voice,” said Eldridge. “The new legislation proposed by Congressman McGovern would make it clear that First Amendment rights are for people, not corporations, making sure that corporate special interest money stops drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.”
Eldridge was joined by elected state officials and national advocates for campaign finance reform, including Attorney General Martha Coakley, State Rep.Cory Atkins, Rep.Marty Walz, Rep.Jim O’Day, Harvard Law Professor John Coates, American Sustainable Business Council CEO David Levine, and Free Speech for People co-founders John Bonifaz and Jeff Clements.
In 2011, ldridge and Atkins introduced S.772, “The People’s Rights Resolution,” a successful state resolution supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Eldridge reaffirmed his strong support for McGovern’s two new amendments to restore fair elections and constitutional rights in stops at Suffolk University and Clark University.
“Our election system is broken, awash in special interest money,” said McGovern. “As any high school civics student knows, the first three words of the preamble to the Constitution are ‘We the People.’ Corporations are not people. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling marks the most extreme extension of a corporate rights doctrine which has eroded our First Amendment and our Constitution, and we must work through every grassroots and legislative avenue to overturn it.”
BOSTON —In a 36-0 bipartisan vote, the state Senate passed legislation Monday that would require new levels of disclosure and transparency for corporate political spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
This vote follows a resolution passed by the Senate last week calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.
“Because of the Citizens United decision, for-profit corporations can currently spend unlimited amounts to influence elections at all levels of government – and without basic disclosure laws, they can do so secretly and anonymously,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, the lead sponsor of the bill and the Senate resolution on Citizens United. “The best long-term solution is to pass a constitutional amendment correcting the Supreme Court decision, but passing the Massachusetts Disclosure Act is an important step we can and should take now to make sure voters at least know who is paying for the ads they see.”
The Massachusetts Disclosure Act, formally known as “An Act Relative to the Disclosure of Political Spending” (S2375, formerly S304), would update the state’s campaign finance laws to ensure that corporations are required to follow the same disclosure and reporting rules that currently apply to individuals, unions and associations, according to Eldridge’s office.
Additionally, the Disclosure Act would close a loophole that allows organizations to avoid disclosure by funneling funds through intermediary groups, require disclosure for paid Internet advertisements, and require organizations to state their “Top Five” contributors in paid advertisements. All of these provisions will help ensure voters are aware of special interests that are funding advertisements and empower the public to hold corporations accountable for political activities, Eldridge’s office said.
“Citizens United left a gaping hole in our state disclosure requirements, giving corporations the ability to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to influence our elections,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause. “This loophole, and others that allow for undisclosed money in politics, must be closed. The Senate has taken an important step to stop secret money from influencing Massachusetts elections.”
Last session, the Legislature passed a pre-cursor to this legislation in the budget, subjecting corporate-sponsored political advertising to the same disclosure laws that apply to other political spending, and requiring CEOs to “stand by their ads” by appearing in the ads to say they “approve this message.”