Archive for the ‘Special Projects’ Category

Special Report: Just a Bill on Beacon Hill

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

The Journey of the “Bath Salts” Bill

By Marjorie Nesin

Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill jingle comes to mind when citizens of the commonwealth ponder how proposed legislation becomes a law on Beacon Hill.

http://youtu.be/VxT7QjlvDqM

But, there’s a lot more to passing a law than the little, animated Bill suggests as he trots around Washington’s Capitol Hill, lounging on the steps and staking out a committee hearing room. In the Massachusetts’ Statehouse, bills can lounge for a long time, often slipping into obscurity with little public notice.

One bill began its Beacon Hill journey this August after two Attleboro-area families spoke to their local representatives. A son in one family had suffered serious health consequences after using an over-the counter drug called “bath salts” and a daughter of another family had spent all of her money on the drug after becoming addicted.

After hearing their stories, Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, R- North Attleboro, and Rep. George Ross, R-Attleboro, sponsored legislation to criminalize the drugs that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, act as a brain stimulant and present the danger of addiction and abuse.

Once filed, the bath salts bill started its uncertain journey.

The House clerk assigned the legislation to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which considers legislation involving crimes, penalties and sentencing.

The legislation had lots of company as one of nearly 1,000 proposed bills assigned to the committee this session. So far, about two dozen have made it to committee vote. The rest may not be as lucky. In the last legislative session a majority of another 1,000 bills were sent into study – a legislative limbo from which many proposals never return.

Poirier said quick action on the legislation is critical.

“The drug is legal, inexpensive and very easily accessed,” Poirier said, “So, we explained to the chairman of the committee how urgent it was to have a hearing on this bill.”

In November, the committee held its 11th hearing of the legislative session – an average of once a month – to discuss a handful of bills, including the bath salts legislation. It was the only time the legislation has been discussed in public.

Police officers, concerned family members and legislators came to the Statehouse to speak on behalf of the bill. No one spoke against it. The committee has not yet taken action on the bill.

Poirier said she has spoken to the chairmen, pushing for the passage of this legislation. She is hopeful the committee will vote on the bill in the New Year.

“It’s difficult to pass anything at this time of the year. People are scattered for the holidays and the legislature isn’t in formal session until January.” Poirier said.

Committee chairman Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, did not return calls for comment.

The next step for the bill is to be voted on by the committee. A favorable vote would move it forward, but it could be sent to other committees or to study before the full House could vote on it. It would then be sent to the Senate, where a similar process is likely.

But, nothing can be done until the committee acts, Poirier said.

“We’ve been urging its quick passage and hopefully the committee will report it out soon,” she said.

Many legislative aides chasing own political dreams

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

November 28, 2011

BOSTON — State Sen. Jamie Eldridge is a hard man to ignore.

You can follow the Acton Democrat on Twitter, friend him on Facebook or read his blog, “The Dridge Report.” Avoid the Internet, and you’ll still find his columns and letters to the editor in local newspapers or hear his impassioned speeches on the Senate floor.

Behind it all is his communication director Melissa Threadgill, making sure his voice is heard.

But Threadgill sometimes wishes it was her voice.

“There are times when I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I could be up there speaking! I would do this or say this,” she says.

It’s a wish that often becomes reality on Beacon Hill. Threadgill says it’s possible she might run for office in the future. If so, she’d be in good company: almost 20 percent of Massachusetts state lawmakers say they began their careers as legislative aides.

For now, though, Threadgill wants to keep the focus on Eldridge, not on the work she does reviewing legislation, brainstorming and filing amendments, helping the senator prepare for debate, arranging press conferences and sending media releases.

“At the end of the day, I can work so many hours, but Jamie is always working more hours than I am,” she says. “We try to encourage him to take a little more time off. We try to say, ‘Maybe Sundays, you should take Sundays off,’ but he’s always putting events on his calendar. He likes to get out there and see people.”

Getting out there and seeing people is the part of politics Threadgill shies away from, preferring the behind-the-scenes work. Even in conversation she pushes Eldridge to center stage: ask her about her typical work day and somehow she’ll seamlessly transition that answer into a description of Eldridge’s social media prowess.

Lawmakers who got their start working as legislative aides remember high stress and low pay — but a valuable introduction to state politics.

“It taught me how to create change where we can,” says Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut. “It taught me how to look at things differently in terms of seeing the bigger picture, in that we are a commonwealth and not just one small community.”

It was while working for Rep. John Cox that Garry says she learned there’s more to being a legislator than showing up for votes. Like Threadgill, Garry saw the chance to meet constituents and gain knowledge of different policy areas.

For Garry and other former aides, this experience was a stepping stone.

“It was really difficult to be making $22,000 a year and living in different apartments, and living in my parents’ house, and all these different things you’ve got to do to be in the environment you want to be,” Rep. Jim Arciero, D-Westford, recalls of the years he worked as an aide after graduating from college.

“If you want to work for a position in government — or in any walk of life — that you think is going to somehow give you an opportunity to chase your dreams, then by all means do it, and eat tuna fish cans and Ramen noodles.” The dreams Threadgill is chasing aren’t of power or status or wealth.

They’re dreams she fostered as a politics student at Oberlin College, where the school motto is, “Think one person can make a difference? So do we.” It’s a maxim Threadgill maintains as a personal philosophy six years after graduating.

“I come from a very do-goodery school,” she says. “It’s just, ‘how can we make this world a better place? I’ve lived in Massachusetts for almost seven years now, how can we make Massachusetts better?'”

Crafting a brighter future for Massachusetts wasn’t the original plan for Threadgill, a native of upstate New York. She expected her political aspirations to bring her to Washington, D.C. — “because that’s what you think when you’re in politics and you’re 22″ — but a friend from Oberlin suggested Boston.

She moved to Boston in 2005 and started working on campaigns before becoming the communication director of the gay rights advocacy group MassEquality. She met Eldridge, then a state representative, through the organization and joined his staff when he was elected to the Senate in 2009.

For Threadgill, whose sentences are often delivered through a broad smile and punctuated with a cheerful laugh, the switch from grassroots advocacy to the formality of the Statehouse was a tough adjustment.

“We deal with very serious subjects here, and I think we try to treat people and their concerns and their problems very seriously,” she says. “Maybe sometimes we could probably lighten up a little bit, particularly on the bureaucratic speech.”

Threadgill says one of her longterm goals is to make government more accessible and the political process easier to understand. She’s stripping away what she calls “legislative gobbledygook” so constituents can see why she and the senator believe casinos will hurt the state, or that public records laws need updating.

“For me, communications is just a way to get at that,” she says. “I think as a whole the more informed the public is the better. If we can do a good job of explaining the good work that we’re doing up here, I think it’s better for democracy.”

Special Report: U.N. expert looks into Cape water management woes

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

By Garrett BrngerCape Cod Times

February 25, 2011

As a United Nations contractor, Catarina de Albuquerque travels the world to ensure that governments meet the international human right to water for drinking and sanitation. This weekend, she will be monitoring those efforts on Cape Cod.

De Albuquerque, who is scheduled to visit East Falmouth today on her mission, took part in a Statehouse hearing Friday about Cape Cod’s difficulties with current water and wastewater management.

After speaking briefly about her job and experiences in Bangladesh and Slovenia at the beginning of the meeting, de Albuquerque listened to speakers from various water policy and infrastructure groups present issues about the price, efficacy and sustainability of new water management techniques.

She learned that the central problem is the high nitrogen levels in the Cape’s water and the search for alternatives to the traditional “big pipe” sewer solution.

Alternative technologies discussed included compost toilets, oyster farms and the familiar cluster sewer systems first proposed in 2009, although none was heralded as the sole savior for the water management system.

Instead, the goal was to explore just about any solution besides the “big pipe” plan, which most called expensive.

“The likelihood is the answer will be a suite of technologies and not just one,” said Becky Smith, the water organizer for Clean Water Action, one of the meeting’s co-sponsors.

Construction of a traditional-style sewer is projected to cost $60,000 per home over 20 years, said Valerie Nelson, the director of the Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment. Nelson said the entire system of water management needs to be reevaluated with the help of state funding.

“Unless we reinvent water management, we are not going to be able to provide an affordable and safe service in water and wastewater,” she said.

Former state Rep. Matthew Patrick of Falmouth said the biggest consideration for a new system would be the cost. It is no longer the case that the federal government would underwrite almost 80 percent of the cost, Patrick said. Instead, the brunt of the blow is borne by residents, many of whom are moving from the state because of high housing costs, especially on the Cape.

Paul Schwartz, Clean Water Action’s national policy coordinator, said the Cape needs to look for new technologies for the sake of sustainability.

“We’re never going to get it back to when the Pilgrims landed here in Massachusetts, and have things the way they were. But what can we expect that we can recover? What can we fix in the water cycle?” Schwartz asked.

De Albuquerque will hear more presentations along the same line in East Falmouth today at a public hearing and discussion. The co-sponsors of the meeting said one important facet of revamping the water management system is public outreach.

“Part of the role of the commission is to bring the toilet talk into the mainstream,” said Smith.

Link to article

Special Report: P’town Fire Dept. receives $38,000 grant

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

By Garrett BrngerCape Cod Times

February 04, 2011

Federal grants of more than $1.18 million have been awarded to eight Massachusetts fire departments, including $38,000 to Provincetown’s fire department, which will use the money on a compressor to fill firefighters’ air tanks.

“It’s great news that another worthwhile fire department in my district has received a competitive federal grant,” U.S. Rep. William Keating said in a press release on Thursday.

“With these funds, the Provincetown Fire Department will be able to enhance their rescue capabilities and continue to provide life-saving services to the people of the Cape.”

The money comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grants for new equipment and training.

Fire Chief Michael Trovato was not available for comment Thursday, but a fire official said the money will pay for the majority of the $40,000 air compressor.

The grant funding will supplement the all-volunteer fire department’s fiscal 2012 budget, which is already established.

Selectman Michele Couture, chairman of the board, said Provincetown residents should be grateful for the grant and the town’s firefighters, one of the few remaining volunteer fire departments in the state.

“I’m sure they’re all proud of them as volunteers, but they save us millions in taxes,” Couture said.

Other fire departments receiving grant money are Manchester, Somerville, Sharon, Bellingham, West Springfield, Mendon and Andover.

Link to article

BU Statehouse coverage: Six Salvations for Massachusetts

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

The Boston University Statehouse Program covers government and politics for newspapers, news websites and radio stations around the state.

With Massachusetts looking at an annual budget deficit as large as $1 billion, Legislators and state officials are looking for new sources of revenue. Students investigated six of Beacon Hill’s budget “solutions” to see what they would bring to the state, and whether they could help solve the budget crisis.

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MassDOT: does consolidation save?

BY SOPAN DEB

BOSTON – Last June, Gov. Deval Patrick triumphantly announced the bill he had just signed would deliver “real cost savings” and “radically” reduce the state’s transportation bureaucracy. That bill created MassDOT – an ambitious merging of the state’s transportation agencies, authorities and offices into one superagency.

Legislative leaders joined the bandwagon, claiming the merging of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Highway Division, MBTA and Aeronautics Division, along with abolishing the Turnpike Authority, would make transportation more efficient and less costly.

[more…]

State criticized on stimulus spending

BY SARA BROWN AND SARAH THOMAS

BOSTON – In February, the federal government outlined hopes for the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) package: Jobs, economic growth, infrastructure improvements – all under the open public gaze of transparency and accountability.

Massachusetts’ officials had their own hopes for the estimated $12 billion the state was to receive. They spoke of “shovel-ready” projects that could start immediately and infuse the economy with money and jobs, countering an unemployment rate that had risen past 7.8 percent in February and continued to climb with 230,000 Massachusetts residents receiving unemployment benefits.

[more…]

Could biotech save the state?

BY JEN JUDSON, GREG KWASNIK AND ANTOINETTE PIZZI

BOSTON – In 2008, the Massachusetts Legislature approved the Life Sciences Act, a 10-year, $1 billion initiative that promised to bring biotechnology companies and jobs to the state, building on an industry already at the nucleus of the state’s high-tech economy.

Facing competition from California, Pennsylvania and other states, the Legislature designed the act to make Massachusetts more attractive to companies and investors through tax incentives, loans and grants.

[more…]

State working out bugs in renewable energy leadership

BY JEN JUDSON, GREG KWASNIK AND ANTOINETTE PIZZI

BOSTON — In the darkening recession, Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature have dialed back funding for education, social services and local aid. But energy efficiency and renewable energy development – promised as a salvation for economic growth – have been spared.

“We are in very difficult times, as you know, but we cannot afford to slow down or think small, especially in the clean energy field,” Patrick told a conference of 400 energy entrepreneurs and investors in Boston earlier this month.

[more…]

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How much money could casinos bring to Mass.?

BY MOLLY CONNORS AND VICTORIA KLARFELD

BOSTON – There is no mystery why – with Massachusetts facing another multimillion-dollar budget gap – the promise of legalized gambling is enjoying fresh support in the Legislature.

Both Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo now support resort casinos similar to Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. Their positions come less than a year after the House rejected a similar proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick that he said would “result in tens of thousands of construction jobs, over 20,000 permanent jobs and billions of dollars invested in our economy.”

[more…]

Consolidation efforts slow to take root in Massachusetts

BY MATTHEW KAPLAN

BOSTON – The idea of Hamilton and Wenham combining services was nothing new. After all, the two towns have shared a school district, an emergency dispatch center, library and facilities manager since the 1960s.

But in 2004, town officials had another idea: Why not consolidate the towns? It might save more money and make services more efficient.

The answer, according to a state Department of Revenue study done at the towns’ request, was that the towns could save around $750,000 a year out of combined budgets of $42.2 million.

[more…]