Ten Years in the Massachusetts House, a Legislative Memoir

It’s exceedingly hard to pass legislation.  I often joked with freshman legislators that the only reason stuff passes in the legislature is because it met leadership’s press relations needs. Much of what I accomplished were bills that were amended onto larger bills that were moving like freight train. These are the stories behind the bills that I got through the House.

The first bill I passed was the Mashpee’s home rule petition for an Economic Development Corporation with bonding authority, which had been languishing for years. My good friend and colleague Angelo Scaccia, who was chair of bills on Third Reading helped me get this bill passed because we had a history.

After I organized the Quashnet Coalition to save the Quashnet River from development, Representative Tom Cahir, who proceeded me as Representative in the Third Barnstable District, filed legislation to purchase the 360 acres along the Quashnet. The Environmental Affairs Committee had a hearing in Mashpee. Representative Angelo Scaccia was a member and attended the hearing held at Mashpee’s Town Hall. Bob Maxim, a Wampanoag Native American made a great presentation about the shellfish that inhabited Waquoit Bay into which the Quashnet flowed. He even brought samples of the shellfish in to show the members of the committee. Rep. Scaccia made a comment about how he would love to take the quahogs home to eat so about a week later I went to the State House and gave him a peck of little necks that I raked in myself out of Waquoit Bay.

When I got elected I went up to him and said, “Do you remember the guy that gave you the quahogs from Waquoit Bay?” Surprisingly, he did remember, so we immediately had some common ground to talk about. He offered to help me out if I ever needed anything so he helped me move Mashpee’s bill. He also helped me get a proclamation through that had the Massachusetts Legislature endorse Federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. I continued to give him a peck of littlenecks around Christmas in an old Italian tradition.

The Potassium Iodide (KI) Supply Bill for towns in Barnstable County and the North Shore was another one of my early successes. KI supplements prevent the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine that is given off if a nuclear power plant melts down. It wasn’t my bill originally but I adopted and amended it to make it passable. I argued that residents of the Cape and North Shore would not be able to evacuate in the event of a melt down and that the companies that owned the nuclear reactors should pay to provide a supply of KI in every town building and school. In the event it is needed, people will be able to pick it up at those places in each town.

Of course the nuclear power plants hated the bill and our own emergency agency, MEMA, dragged their feet implementing it but it happened after much prodding by me with a lot of back up by Pixie Lambert from Duxbury who made fighting Pilgrim Nuclear power plant her life’s work. She helped me introduce many commonsense public safety bills in that area but none of them would pass in the face of heavy industry opposition. That’s also when I realized that without more staff, it is nearly impossible to provide the attention needed to pass complicated legislation.

In my second term, the big issue that initiated my advocacy was the murder of a young man from my district by a registered pedophile sex offender. Although the sex offender was registered at an address in Mashpee, he never notified the police in Falmouth when he moved and was living with a former probation officer and a priest. He also never notified the Falmouth Police that he worked at a local convenience store directly across from the Falmouth recreation building. The boy’s mother contacted me and I worked with Rep. Vallee, then chair of the Judiciary committee, to craft a bill that would provide for more intensive probation with an ankle bracelet and unannounced drug and alcohol testing. I introduced the mother to Senate President Terry Murray who also played a big part in making the more stringent laws regarding sex offenders happen. It was the merit of the bill that moved it into law and like so many other bills, some young person has to die first before it comes to the legislature’s attention.

Also in my second term the Sagamore Flyover became an issue. The new Governor Mitt Romney had made it a priority to eliminate the backups caused by the rotary in the summer tourist season. The town of Bourne needed the big project because public safety was put in jeopardy. They could not get their emergency vehicles through the rotary during the times when it was backed up. That’s when Tom Cahir, the former State Representative for the Third Barnstable District and at the time working for Mass Highways, got involved. He informed me of Bourne’s need and the fact that I was the only Democratic Representative among three that represented Bourne that could get the project passed.

I began calling all of my colleagues regarding the measure which was included in the Transportation Bond Bill. My efforts were made more complicated because of two things: one of the new Reps for Bourne was the vitriolic Republican Jeff Perry who made nasty speeches and even criticized me by name which is never done and therefore engendered the then Speaker Tom Finneran’s enmity.   More importantly, the south coast delegation had decided that they could hold the project hostage to get passenger rails extended down to Fall River and New Bedford so they got many of my colleagues to commit to voting against Romney’s proposal, who was not well liked by Democratic legislators.

I told my colleagues that if this didn’t get passed Romney would hold it against me in the upcoming election which we all knew would be tough because I had just won the previous year by 17 votes in a recount and a series of court cases that were finally settled by the SJC after nine months. The south coast delegation was not happy and refused to let people give up their commitments to vote against the Romney flyover. There were a number of votes and maneuvers on the floor coordinated by the Speaker and John Rogers, then chair of Ways and Means, in an effort to get the flyover measure passed but Perry, who of course supported the measure, was irritating everyone and killing any chance the measure had with Speaker Finneran.

It came down to me in the Speaker’s office with the powerful south coast delegation trying to get them to release the others from their commitment not to vote for the flyover. Finneran asked each of us to speak. I said that they were going to turn me into “road kill” then quickly said, no, make that rotary kill, (which got a laugh from everyone) in the next election if the flyover didn’t happen and in fact it was necessary for public safety. Chairman Rogers suggested language that would get a commitment from the governor to move forward with a study on the south coast delegation’s project. John Rogers got the commitment from the administration and the south coast delegation released my colleagues from their commitment and the Sagamore Flyover measure passed in spite of Perry. Tom Finneran and John Rogers earned my respect and gratitude from that day forward. Regardless of what some may think, they are honest men who stood by me when I needed it desperately.

The next big bill that I worked on was the Appliance Efficiency Standards Act. It was originally filed by my good friend and colleague Representative Paul Demakis of Boston who sat in front of me in the House but he retired and I filed it at his request the next session. I was familiar with it because of my seat on the Energy Committee where Paul had been trying to pass it for several years. It would increase the efficiency standards for many appliances and then give the Division of Energy Resources the ability to increase those standards after holding public hearings. Paul, a good man, always was at loggerheads with leadership and that’s why he could never get the bill passed.

When my good friend Senator O’Leary became Senate Chair of the Energy Committee that session I went to him to talk about the bill and asked him to join me in sponsoring it. He did so and I knew with his support we had a good chance of getting it through. It had heavy opposition from the appliance industry who were well represented by many lobbyists. After several contentious hearings, we got it out of the committee and to the floor where it was passed first by the Senate and then by the House with some compromise language. The floor debate doesn’t stand out in my mind because I think the technical nature of the bill was too difficult for others to argue. My expertise in energy had been pretty well established by the Cape Wind saga which contributed to the close election mentioned earlier so most of my colleagues accepted my explanation.

The complicated and extensive Green Communities Act was the first major energy bill to come out of the House in decades and Speaker Sal DiMasi deserves credit for making it his priority in the House. However, it was I that went to him in the previous session to say that we should be moving on several policy changes: raising the cap on net metering to encourage more and larger renewable energy projects, virtual net metering which turned it into an accounting practice, Least Cost Planning, which requires that the DPU prioritizes the provision of electricity through methods that cost the least in economic, societal and environmental terms and decoupling the profits of utilities from their sales of electricity. DiMasi had me in to talk about the measures. All of these items eventually found their way into the comprehensive bill but took months of work on my part to convince Senate Chair of Energy Mike Morrissey to understand and appreciate their value. The only thing that was left out was decoupling and there was an understanding with the administration that it would be taken up by the Department of Public Utilities.

One of the interesting sidelines of the Green Communities Act was that when I presented clarifying amendments the chairman of the Energy Committee told me that if I ever wanted to see the home rule petition I filed for Falmouth pass, I should withdraw the amendments. I was furious and tried to show him that they were not substantial amendments, just technical fixes. He seemed to be checking with his aide who kept saying no. Off I went to see Senator O’Leary to ask him to file the amendments and of course he agreed to file them barring any major problems. I marched back to the House and I told the chair that he would have to pass the Falmouth home rule petition immediately, and they did, moving it through the final three steps in the process in about five minutes, something that could, and usually did, take forever.

Closing corporate tax loop holes became important to me when I found out that about 1,100 corporations in the Commonwealth grossing between 100 million and a billion dollars annually paid the minimum tax of $456, less than the average family in Massachusetts. I recruited several friends to help: Senator Jaime Eldridge who was still in the House at the time, Carl Sciortino, Steve D’Amico, Mark Falzone, Dave Sullivan and Denise Provost. Chairmen Jay Kaufman and Frank Smizik were our inside game. My good friend Dave Linsky also supported the effort in caucus where a lot of this stuff is argued out because the Democrats dominate. This also happened during Sal DiMasi’s Speakership. Before the caucus, we started calling members to give them the facts and asked them to support our amendments. We had a lot of support but probably not a majority of the Dems. So during the caucus I got up immediately after the speaker finished his introduction and launched into the arguments. Dave Linsky stood after I was done and gave a great speech in favor of the amendment. Then Mark Falzone, Carl, Jaime, Denise and Dave Sullivan all spoke. There was very little opposition except from my good friend Barry Finegold who said we would lose jobs. I pointed out that most other states had the same laws governing taxes and it would actually be fairer to corporations that do pay their taxes.

There are another 113 corporations with over a billion dollars in sales that pay no taxes. How do they do it? The corporations create subsidiaries in other states that charge no corporate taxes and assign all their profits to those places. I gave an excellent floor speech on the issue that you can find on my website. In the end, after some compromises, we won and gained the $200 million annually in much needed tax revenue.

I filed the all terrain vehicle bill (ATV bill) after getting a request from a constituent, Margaret Cooper and the Falmouth Natural Resource Officers Mark Patton and Chuck Martinsen because they were upset with kids driving them through the woods, making noise and tearing up the trails. They also mentioned that many children were seriously injured riding ATVs through the woods. After doing some research I decided to focus on the child safety factor. The bill hearing in the Transportation Committee became one of those heart wrenching moments because the parents of a small boy who was recently killed on an ATV that was much too large for him came in to testify. The parents left their son with a neighbor who let him ride a large ATV even though he had never been on one before. The parents, who were from Plymouth, were devastated. They were not going to rest until the bill passed to memorialize their son. Before long I had them talking to their senator and representative, Senate President Terry Murray and Vinny DeMacedo, a Republican. Both became big supporters of the bill.

The Senate Chair of Transportation, Steve Brodeur, took ownership of the bill and nursed it along through two sessions and many hearings. He deserves credit for the final draft which became much more complicated and extensive than my original language. There was a lot of opposition because parents viewed ATV riding as a family past time and of course the industry hated it. We also had emergency room trauma doctors coming in to testify about the damage done to kids on ATVs not only in Massachusetts but nationally. Of course the industry fought it to the end but we managed to put out the toughest restrictions in the nation. It is now the national standard which other states are looking to emulate.

The PACE (property assessed clean energy), which will enable towns to set up programs that will enable residents and businesses to finance clean energy projects using the borrowing power of the town and pay back the loans through betterments, passed mainly based on the merit of the proposal and its success in other states. It had overwhelming support in the hearing with very little opposition. Latter it was amended to the municipal relief act with the sponsorship of three chairmen, Frank Smizik of Global Warming and Climate Change, Jay Kaufman of Taxation, Barry Finegold of Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy and myself. The amendment drew bipartisan support.

In another example of adults acting poorly, I managed to get through the “No name calling day” bill as an amendment to the Anti-bullying bill that passed. I filed it on the request of the Mashpee K Kids Club, so they could learn something about the legislative process, come to the state house and testify for the bill. This is interesting because the aforementioned Jeff Perry, eventual losing candidate for Congress, shared the town of Mashpee with me and out of a courtesy, I asked him to cosponsor the amendment. He did but the bill was later cited by Howie Carr, Boston Herald columnist, as an example of wasted time and effort by state legislators and it stalled in committee. The Mashpee K Kids showed up to testify with their teachers and did a fantastic job. One of them even spoke to the cynical column by Carr. Perry was nowhere to be found. Afterwards, no matter how I tried, the chairman said that the Speaker didn’t want it to move because of the Carr column and the negative publicity. So, when the time came, I filed it as an amendment to the anti-bullying bill. Leadership wanted me to pull the amendment, but I refused and luckily didn’t have any home rule petitions pending. Eventually they caved in and agreed to add it to the bill. Of course Perry, who was already running for Congress, wanted nothing to do with it.