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House boosts minimum wage

BOSTON – The Massachusetts House approved a bill Wednesday night that would increase the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 over the next two years, with local legislators arguing beforehand that was more than businesses could bear.

The legislation, which passed on a 123-24 vote, also would overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance system and provide basic work standards and protections for nannies and other domestic workers.

The Senate has already approved separate minimum wage and unemployment insurance bills. The Senate bill would increase the wage to $11 per hour over three years and link automatic increases to the rate of inflation.

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Gaming panel officially awards slots machine license to Penn National for Plainville

By Max Lewontin, Sun Chronicle, Statehouse correspondent

BOSTON — State gaming officials voted unanimously to award the state’s first and only slots machine license to Penn National Gaming’s proposal for Plainridge Racecourse this morning after representatives for the company said they had no objections to the conditions cited by the panel.

“In addition to regulators, we’re partners now,” said Stephen Crosby, the state Gaming Commission chairman.

“I think Penn National is ready to get to work, they’re going to Plainville after this meeting,” Crosby said.

“The people of Plainville spoke very clearly,” he said at a press conference after the vote. “They’re accustomed to having a gaming facility, they’re used to the traffic issues and there was very little organized opposition.”

“They really voted with their feet with this one,” Crosby added

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Legislators hope to remove firearms licensing for carrying pepper spray

By Max Lewontin, Sun Chronicle, Statehouse correspondent

BOSTON – State lawmakers are hoping for action on several bills that would allow citizens to buy pepper spray and chemical Mace without going through the time and expense of getting a firearms identification card.

“We need to waive that requirement to allow women to purchase pepper spray for self-defense purposes,” said Rep. Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield, who is a co-sponsor of one of the bills.

Currently, Massachusetts residents who want to carry pepper spray must be over 18 and pay $100 for a firearms identification card. The process is the same as obtaining a firearms license, with wait times ranging from four to six months, said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League.

Wallace called the current law “ridiculous.”

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Opiate abuse hits area hard

By Jonathan Riley, Sentinel & Enterprise, Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON — Senate President Therese Murray has called it an epidemic. A legislative committee has been formed to study it. And with opiate abuse increasing across the state and the nation, North Central Massachusetts has been one of the areas hardest hit.

“I think it’s evident how big the problem is,” said Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, chairwoman of the Senate’s Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options. “If you look at any newspaper almost any given day, you see cases of overdoses or arrests for possession.”

That media coverage got an added boost with the overdose death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman in New York City earlier this month.

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Flood Plain-Main

By Francesca Barbato and Alexandra Shi,State House correspondent

BOSTON – Massachusetts coastal and riverside property owners are facing a double threat from rising sea levels.

The extensive damage to coastal New Jersey and sections of New York City caused by last year’s Superstorm Sandy is being called a preview of what Massachusetts will face sometime in the future.

But another storm is already breaking for many along the state’s coast and rivers in the form of rising property insurance premiums. These costs are likely to surge into adjacent areas of the state as a federal insurance program, often the last resort for waterfront residents, sets higher rates and extend flood plain designations to neighborhoods and towns once considered safe.

The projected effects of climate change and the resulting escalation of insurance rates will affect more coastline dwellers. State officials and real estate experts fear long-term ramifications on property values, tax collections and the construction business.

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Flood Plain-Impact

By Yuan Ma and Loren Savini,State House correspondent

Superstorm Sandy wreaked $28 million worth of havoc in Massachusetts a year ago October, cutting power to 400,000 customers and forcing evacuations in low-lying areas from Dartmouth to Plum Island.

It could have been much worse.

According to Preparing for the Rising Tide, a study by the Boston Harbor Association, if the Sandy had hit Boston five and a half hours later – at high tide rather than low tide – floodwaters could have floated boats in the Back Bay. The Charles River would have overflowed into Cambridge’s Harvard Square. More than 6 percent of Boston would have been under water.

Massachusetts coastal and river areas can’t hope to escape such destruction forever. A variety of studies by government and private organizations warn that climate change will intensify storms and raise sea levels, increasing the threat to coastal and riverfront areas.

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Flood Plain – Insurance

By Lisa Hagen and Alex Hyacinthe,State House correspondent

BOSTON – Massachusetts is being swamped with horror stories of skyrocketing insurance premiums for homes on the water’s edge and – more recently – in adjacent areas once considered safe from flooding.

Members of the state legislature and the congressional delegation say they are hearing of rates jumping by as much 1,000 percent, driven by changes in a federal insurance program and data suggesting more properties are at risk from rising ocean levels and climate change.

Rep. James Cantwell (D-Marshfield) says he has heard of premiums increasing as much as $60,000 per year. Other lawmakers have similar stories.

“The highest one I’ve seen was $60,000,” U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said. “The house was only worth $250,000. In roughly four years you’ve basically paid for your house.”

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Flood Plain – Mitigation

By Gina Curreri and Carol Kozma, State House correspondent

Threats of rising flood levels are slowly changing the face of many Massachusetts communities.

Existing waterfront properties are moving up or back to escape potential flooding. Other structures are going away entirely, leaving a buffer area to blunt future floods. Municipalities are updating construction codes to require heating and cooling systems be moved from vulnerable basements to higher floors.

These changes are being made for reasons beyond mitigating storm damage. By securing structures or moving them up and out, property owners can literally rise above new flood plain designations, reducing the cost of their insurance.

Anne Herbst, Hull’s conservation manager, said more people are considering “freeboarding,” the process of elevating homes above predicted flood levels. Hull’s planning board now offers a one-time $500 credit against permitting costs to those who build two feet higher than required elevations.

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Flood Plain – Insurance

February 20th, 2014

By Lisa Hagen and Alex Hyacinthe, State House correspondent

BOSTON – Massachusetts is being swamped with horror stories of skyrocketing insurance premiums for homes on the water’s edge and – more recently – in adjacent areas once considered safe from flooding.

Members of the state legislature and the congressional delegation say they are hearing of rates jumping by as much 1,000 percent, driven by changes in a federal insurance program and data suggesting more properties are at risk from rising ocean levels and climate change.

Rep. James Cantwell (D-Marshfield) says he has heard of premiums increasing as much as $60,000 per year. Other lawmakers have similar stories.

“The highest one I’ve seen was $60,000,” U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said. “The house was only worth $250,000. In roughly four years you’ve basically paid for your house.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) tells of a homeowner who saw his payment go from $3,000 to $68,000 a year.

“My major concern is that if costs are rising in that manner, people will lose their homes,” DeLeo said in a telephone interview.

Such examples are extreme, according to Bob Desaulniers, a New England FEMA insurance specialist. He said most property owners in or near flood plains can expect around a 25 percent increase – an average of a couple hundred dollars – in yearly premiums.

One reason for the increases is a change in the National Flood Insurance Program, the insurer of last resort for some 60,185 policy holders in Massachusetts.

Until last year the 45-year-old program offered subsidized insurance for owners of at-risk properties. But a string of losses from major storms such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina drove the program into a $25 billion deficit.

In response, Congress passed the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act, which requires the program to bring rates up to more realistically reflect risk. It also requires FEMA to remap flood plains to account for rising sea levels and an increase in severe storms.

Some of those increases, which began Oct. 1, are having a profound effect on real estate.

Paul Breen, a Provincetown insurance agent, tells of the sale of a multi-million dollar property that fell through because premiums were set to jump from $4,000 to $42,000.

“That was for the base $250,000 worth of flood insurance offered by FEMA,” he said.

Breen said additional private flood coverage was going to cost the buyers an additional $35,000.

“Their combined flood insurance premium was going to be almost $80,000 a year,” he said. “So they chose not to buy that property.”

Coastal municipalities have been hit hard by the insurance tsunami, according to preliminary data from Colleen Bailey, a mapping coordinator for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

From 2012 to 2013, Quincy saw nearly 1,300 structures added to the flood hazard area. Marshfield, saw an increase of more than 1,500 structures; nearly 500 properties were added in Scituate.

Desaulniers explained that two types of properties are most vulnerable to extreme rate increases – older homes that predate earlier flood mapping and homes that suffer repetitive losses.

“There shouldn’t be any wild, crazy jumps,” he said, “But a higher percentage of homes in New England are older.”

Further increases are on the way. Biggert-Waters allows owners of older homes to keep their lower. But if the property is sold, higher rates will apply.

“The problem is that it’s a double whammy,” Breen said.

State and federal lawmakers are looking for ways to alleviate the pain for homeowners.

Cantwell thinks it would be fairer to shift some burden to homes that have suffered repetitive losses.

“One percent of national flood policies account for 33 percent of all claims,” he said.

Cantwell has also challenged FEMA mapping data, noting that 40 percent of the structures in Marshfield added to the flood zone never needed flood insurance before. Marshfield, Scituate, and Duxbury have appealed FEMA’s new maps.

According to Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) recruited a group from UMass-Dartmouth to review the maps, charging that the FEMA maps used the wrong wave model.

“They used a model for the Pacific coasts which are different from the Atlantic,” Cantwell said. “Our waves come up gradually and our coastline is very shallow where the west coast is much deeper.”

Towns can appeal FEMA mapping to a scientific panel that can provide feedback. Cantwell said if towns are still unsatisfied, they can sue at the U.S. District Court.

“[I have] concerns that insurance companies [are] charging exorbitant costs without proper science behind it,” said Cantwell.

Lynch has joined over 100 members of Congress working on the Flood Insurance Affordability Act, a bipartisan bill that would help ease the transition.

“What we’re trying to do is require that FEMA conduct the affordability studies first and also make sure that their remapping technology and the process itself is consistent with the historical record,” Lynch said.

DeLeo filed a bill last month with Attorney General Martha Coakley and Cantwell that would allow homeowners to limit insurance coverage to the amount they still own on their mortgages.

“It is a risk they would take as to whether a particular situation really needs extra insurance, but they are not required to get it,” he said.

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Flood Plain-Impact

February 20th, 2014

By Yuan Ma and Loren Savini, State House correspondent

Superstorm Sandy wreaked $28 million worth of havoc in Massachusetts a year ago October, cutting power to 400,000 customers and forcing evacuations in low-lying areas from Dartmouth to Plum Island.

It could have been much worse.

According to Preparing for the Rising Tide, a study by the Boston Harbor Association, if the Sandy had hit Boston five and a half hours later – at high tide rather than low tide – floodwaters could have floated boats in the Back Bay. The Charles River would have overflowed into Cambridge’s Harvard Square. More than 6 percent of Boston would have been under water.

Massachusetts coastal and river areas can’t hope to escape such destruction forever. A variety of studies by government and private organizations warn that climate change will intensify storms and raise sea levels, increasing the threat to coastal and riverfront areas.

The reports echo data that has led both commercial and government insurers to boost rates significantly over the past year.

The Boston Harbor Association study says over 30 percent of Boston could be flooded if the sea level rises by two and half feet. It predicts that Boston’s sea level will rise two feet by the year 2050 and six feet by the year 2100.

Logan International Airport, which is constructed on reclaimed wetlands, could be affected by late-century flooding, according to the Confronting Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast by the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment Synthesis Team, a collaboration of the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 50 independent experts.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ Climate Change Adaptation Report, a study ordered in 2008 by the state Legislature, predicts that by the year 2100 such landmarks such as Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, Old South Church and Copley Square would be inundated in so-called 100-year events.

A 100-year event is defined as a storm that has a one-in-a-100 chance of occurring each year.

But such odds are getting shorter with the increase in the number and intensity of storms. The 1991 “Perfect Storm” – once rated a 1,000-year event – is now considered a one in 200 to 500-year event.

The state report predicts that by 2050, Boston could experience the current 100-year flood every two to three years on average.

Destruction wouldn’t be confined to immediate storm damage. The state report warns the constant pounding of angrier seas will bring more coastal erosion; saltwater could encroach on underground aquifers, making some freshwater supplies undrinkable.

Climate change will also affect the state’s riverfront communities. Spots on major rivers face a greater threat of flooding, such as the Charles River at Waltham, the Indian Head River at Hanover, the Taunton River near Bridgewater and the Segreganset River near Dighton. According to the U.S. Geological Survey all these location hit their highest flood levels during the 2010 spring rains.

The state report warns that by 2100, the current 100-year riverine flood is expected to occur every one to two years.

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Weaned on Coal, State Still Faces Challenges

February 3rd, 2014

By Alex Hyacinthe, State House correspondent

BOSTON – Over the years, Massachusetts’ electricity producers have weaned the state from coal-generated power to a more eco-friendly mix of natural gas, hydropower and a growing list of alternative sources from wind to solar power.

This shift earned the state first place in the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy 2013 Clean Energy Report and second place in clean energy technology.

But despite such successes, the state’s energy grid still faces challenges. Massachusetts uses more coal-generated electricity than some of its New England neighbors. A lack of infrastructure is making it difficult to bring in more natural gas. And although state law now mandates the use of alternative fuel sources, the lower pollution options are less cost effective than traditional fossil fuels.

The increased use of natural gas to generate electricity has been an economic and environmental solution in the commonwealth, according to Mike DiMauro, an engineer with the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, a non-profit, public corporation that works with the state to provide advice and funding to municipal utilities.

“Some of [the reason for natural gas reliance] was cost, some of it was the availability of natural gas, and of course there are the pollution aspects of it,” he said.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s generating electricity with natural gas produces half the carbon dioxide, less than a third of the nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent of the sulfur oxide generated by coal.

“As far as fossil fuel emissions go they are the lowest emissions you can have while burning fossil fuels,” DiMauro said.

But the commonwealth uses coal at a higher rate than neighboring states.

In 2011, the most recent full-year data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Massachusetts generated 68 percent of its electricity from natural gas, and 11 percent from coal.
Very little of New Hampshire’s electricity was generated by coal. Thirty-three percent came from natural gas and 42 percent came from the Seabrook nuclear plant.

Rhode Island generated 98 percent of its electricity from natural gas. None came from coal.

Less than 2 percent of New York State’s electricity was generated from coal.

Massachusetts’ use of coal will decline with the scheduled shutdown of the two remaining coal-burning power plants in the state. Brayton Point, the largest coal-fired plant in Massachusetts, is scheduled to close in 2017. Salem Harbor will be shut down in the spring of 2014 and replaced with a natural gas plant by 2016.

“The regulations [on coal emissions], the age of coal burning plants, and the predominance of gas-fired, combined-cycle power plants, is what drove reliance on gas,” DiMauro said.

Economic factors also have contributed to the natural gas’ primary role in Massachusetts’ fuel mix.

According to the 2011 EIA data it cost about $66 per megawatt hour to use coal for electric generation, about $83 per megawatt hour from nuclear powers and about $16 per megawatt hour to generate electricity from natural gas.

The dramatically lower cost of natural gas is the result of an equally dramatic increase in supplies. The development of “fracking” – short for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – has allowed energy companies to tap large reserves of oil and natural gas.

Natural gas production in the northeast alone rose from about two billion cubic feet per day in 2008 to about 12 billion cubic feet per day so far this year, according to the EIA. After increasing production by 72 percent from 2011 to 2012, preliminary data indicates that Pennsylvania may be the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas in 2013.

But there are problems with relying on natural gas as the constant, cheap source for the state’s electric generation. Paul Bachman, research director at Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute for Applied Economics, says the network of pipelines needs to grow to be able to carry additional supplies of natural gas. .

“The problem right now is that infrastructure needs to catch up to discovery,” he said.

According to the EIA natural gas supplies increased by about 20 percent nationally from 2007 to 2012 while available cubic feet of pipeline increased by about 17 percent. The same five years saw the electric power sector’s appetite for natural gas grow by 33 percent.

DiMauro said it takes large amounts of time and money and red tape to build and maintain natural gas pipelines. New construction is also highly controversial

“Nobody wants a pipeline going through their backyard or their neighborhood,” he said

An alternative, or at least a supplement, to natural gas could be renewable energy sources, which accounted for about 6 percent of the commonwealth’s electricity in 2011

Renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower come with the bonus of being emissions free. But their costs remain higher than fossil fuels.

Land-based wind generations costs four times as much as natural gas fired electricity; off shore wind generation is 13 times Hydropower costs slightly more than land-based wind generation. .

Canadian hydropower provides 60 percent of electricity in Canada, but only 7 percent in the United States.

Jacob Irving, president of the Canadian Hydropower Association, believes that importing Canadian hydropower to American markets, such as Massachusetts, could contribute efficiency to the power mix.

“We currently have an installed capacity of 74,000 megawatt, and can more than double that to 160,000 megawatts,” he said while acknowledging there would be what he called a “very large up-front cost,” said Irving.
“Hydropower projects require more time, more planning, more up-front consideration,” he said. “But then, if you amortize the project over the life, you see real economic advantages.”

Despite the higher costs for alternative energy sauces, the state’s 2008
Green Communities Act mandates the state’s commercial power suppliers by part of their energy from alternative sources

The law requires the installation of 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017. The commonwealth has already accomplished that goal and is ranked fourth in the nation in installed solar capacity by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Gov. Deval Patrick has asked that 1,600 megawatts of solar be in place by 2020.

Wind projects also play a part in Massachusetts’ energy mix, with the controversial
Cape Wind plan for Nantucket Sound leading the way. The $2.6 billion project would place 130 wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean off Nantucket Island, potentially generating enough electricity to supply 75 percent of Cape Cod the islands electricity.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for the project, acknowledged that wind energy plays a limited role in Massachusetts’ fuel energy mix now, but said continuing development of more efficient equipment and technologies.

“In the second half of the century, New England could be entirely powered by a combination of sources like wind, solar,” said Rodgers.

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Boating While Intoxicated: Loophole Lets Drunken Sailors Boat

February 3rd, 2014

By Gina Curreri, State House correspondent

If you are caught driving drunk in Massachusetts your right to operate a car is quickly put in jeopardy. But if you do are found to be intoxicated while boating there are few legal safeguards to keep you from going out on the water again.

Since you don’t need a license to operate a boat, there is no license to revoke. Your boat registration could be taken away, but buying a new boat and re-registering it is no problem for those who have been caught operating while drunk, either on land or sea – even those who have had multiple stops.

Officials say there’s nothing they can do about it.

“We don’t have boating licenses, though a lot of states do,” said Environmental Police Sgt. Matthew Bass, who covers the Upper Cape and Martha’s Vineyard. “We can suspend their boat registration, but there’s nothing to prevent them from going out to operate a boat not registered to them or buying a new boat.”

It is hard to fathom the impact of “boating while intoxicated.” Records are spotty, both nationally and in Massachusetts. Rivers and coastal waters are not patrolled with the intensity the finite number of highways receive. It can be harder to determine if a boat operator is intoxicated from the long distances on the water.

In 2012, there were 651 deaths nationwide resulting from recreational boating accidents, according to data from the Coast Guard.

Massachusetts boating fatalities accounted for 2.6 percent of the nation’s — the third highest percentage on the East Coast, behind Florida (7.7 percent) and North Carolina (3.5 percent).

In 2012, 10 Massachusetts boating accident reports listed alcohol as a contributing factor, according to Coast Guard records. Five of those resulted in fatalities and eight in injuries. Alcohol was the primary contributing factor in more than 100 fatal boating accidents nationwide.

The Massachusetts Environmental Police responded to 33 BUI incidents from 2009 to 2012, according to data from spokeswoman Amy Mahler. Of those, 10 were in the waters of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Although Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon said arrests for boating under the influence are rare, he believes the problem is greater than records indicate.

“I’m not naive to think that it doesn’t happen because I think it probably does,” he said.

State law treats drivers and boaters the same – up to a point. Operators of cars and boats must have a blood-alcohol content level below .08 to legally operate a car or boat. Those convicted of BUI for the first time are fined up to $1,000 and can face up to 2½ years of jail time.

Those convicted of a motor vehicle OUI for the first time typically face a fine up to $5,000 and license suspension for one year.

A person found guilty of BUI who has been previously convicted or assigned to an alcohol education or rehabilitation program by a state court because of a “like offense,” in the preceding six years receives a stricter punishment.

The law does not explicitly state that a “like offense” includes motor vehicle DUIs.

However, those found guilty of boating under the influence multiple times could have a judge revoke their motor vehicle licenses, boat registrations or have their boat impounded, Bass said.

But there is no requirement that records of drunkenness on land or sea must be combined.

Bass said that there was intent to incorporate motor boats and vessels under Melanie’s Law, a measure intended to crack down on repeat drunk drivers. The law, however, is written primarily for drivers of motor vehicles.

“In some of the small print, the word vessel isn’t included in a lot of sections, so penalties don’t apply,” Bass said.

Cape Cod lawmaker Rep. Cleon Turner, D-Dennis, has filed bills over the past few sessions that would put operating-under-the-influence convictions for boating on a person’s motor vehicle record.

“It’s fairly logical,” Turner said. “We as a Legislature have demanded over the past many years stricter enforcement of operating motor vehicles under the influence of alcohol.”

Turner’s legislation didn’t progress through the Legislature in the last session. It is under review again, but Turner is not optimistic about the outcome.

“It just isn’t an economic necessity to push every bill out of the committee,” Turner said.

The idea for the bill came from his constituents on Cape Cod.

In 2009, the Cape Cod Times reported that although Jeffrey Daluz, 53, had five previous alcohol-related convictions and his motor vehicle license had been revoked, there was no legal prohibition to keep him off the water.

He was arrested for boating under the influence when officers stopped his boat as he headed toward a secure July 4 fireworks display area.

Daluz pleaded guilty in 2010 and was sentenced to two years in jail. He served 90 days and was given two years probation and ordered to remain drug- and alcohol-free.

The state does not collect specific data regarding how many boat operators have been found guilty of multiple operating under the influence convictions, at sea or on land.

A number of law enforcement officials say they just don’t come across drunken boaters that often while on patrol.

Coast Guard officer Josh Perkins, who is based in Chatham, said his patrol unit has not issued a BUI in the past year.

“I think depending on the location of the boating, depending on where you’re at, might dictate how many you come across,” Perkins said.

Yarmouth Harbormaster Edward Tierney said enforcement is even more difficult on the water because it is not illegal to drink while operating a boat in Massachusetts.

“You can drive down Bass River with a beer in your hand as long as you’re not legally intoxicated,” Tierney said. “I would say there’s a high percentage of boaters actively enjoying a beer or cocktail out there.”

Tierney said Yarmouth-area harbormasters, who are sworn law enforcement officers, encounter about 80 to 100 boaters a year who appear drunk, but only 1 percent or 2 percent are determined to be legally intoxicated after a field sobriety test.

Tierney said that low number of boaters found to be drunk may be due to the fact that 90 percent of the harbormasters are seasonal and not as well-trained as full-time officers.

However, he said issuing boating licenses might help curb repeat drunken boating violators.

“I’d like to see that come to fruition, and I think it eventually might,” he said. “BUIs are just a tough case.”

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MCAS to PARCC, New Test, Old Questions

February 3rd, 2014

By Lisa Hagen, State House correspondent

BOSTON- Old controversies over who should set education standards are flaring up again as Massachusetts moves toward new federal-based curriculum and standardized testing designed to prepare students for college and careers beyond high school.

The terms may be new, for example PARCC replaces MCAS as a focal point in the education debate, but the core debate over who sets standards for the state’s school children is heating up again.

“It is a sound violation of local control and the federal government has no right to be meddling with education,” said William Gillmeister, a member of Tantasqua School Committee, which governs a school district for grades 7-12 in five towns in Hampden and Worcester counties.

The committee has adopted resolutions urging state lawmakers to oppose Common Core educational standards that have been adopted by 45 states including the District of Columbia since 2010.

“I don’t understand why it is Massachusetts has to spend likely billions of dollars in establishing standards when the state has arguably the best curriculum educational standards in the nation,” Gillmeister said.

States were encouraged to adopt these standards through the promise of federal grants from Race to the Top, a program created by the Obama administration to encourage changes in education.

Gillmeister said the Tantasqua School Committee has not yet received any federal grants from Race to the Top. He plans to offer a resolution that will require the state to provide funds since his schools have adopted Common Core.

The state is also moving forward with its 2-year pilot program of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the K-12 online assessment that would replace the math and English sections of MCAS.

Massachusetts is one of 19 states including the District of Columbia that is part of a nation-wide PARCC consortium.

Mitchell Chester, state education commissioner and chair of the national PARCC Governing Board, said the state will decide in three years whether to fully implement the test. He said 80 to 90 percent of schools are in the process of transitioning to Common Core standards.

Chester said more than 1,000 schools will participate in the field test next spring. The following spring, he said about half of the state’s school districts will administer PARCC.

“Phasing the test in this way gives districts a chance to get to know the new assessment and get feedback,” he said. “We want to be confident when we do make the decision that there is an improvement over our current MCAS condition.”

Chester said MCAS is not an accurate indicator about whether students are being prepared for college or pursuing a career after graduation. He said PARCC will provide more timely information about students’ success and their readiness to move on.

“The main benefits are that PARCC requires students to apply knowledge at each grade level,” Chester said.

But Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the nonprofit conservative think tank Pioneer Institute, cautioned that PARCC focuses less on classic literature, drama, and poetry, which he said strengthens the vocabulary of students.

He believes the switch to Common Core is one of the reasons for the decline of fourth grade reading scores, which he said is a good predictor of future academic success.

“We’ve known for several years that the reading scores are stagnating or declining, especially with low-income students, and [PARCC] is an unnecessary transition that is not going to help things out and create greater confusion and less continuity,” Gass said.

Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist from California who designed large-scale testing programs for K-12, said it is difficult to measure a student’s readiness for either higher education or the broad spectrum of careers available now and in the future.

“How you measure career readiness out of high school is very hard to do,” McRae said. “There is a differentiation of skills needed in education for a wide range of careers that they can get into.”

Some local school officials are giving the new curriculum high marks. Jason DiCarlo, the principal at Murkland Elementary School in Lowell, said the implementation of Common Core into its curriculum three years ago has been positive for both students and teachers.

But DiCarlo cautioned that the school needs to help teachers adjust their curriculums and survey the student body to see how the standards impact each student while Murkland continues to transition to Common Core.

“Teachers need to be supported rolling out or understanding Common Core standards,” DiCarlo said. “We need to ease some of the uncertainties and the growing pains [of implementing new standards].”

Three years ago, Murkland received a Level 4 rating for low MCAS scores in third grade reading proficiency. Andriolo believes the school’s jump to Level 1 after the most recent MCAS scores was partly due to Murkland’s implementation of Common Core and its emphasis on critical thinking.

Assistant Principal Kevin Andriolo also credited the teachers for helping Murkland achieve its 3-year goal of improving test scores.

“What we’ve seen is that teachers have had the opportunity to develop curriculum from the ground up based upon the standards,” he said.

Andriolo said one of the major differences between the MCAS and PARCC tests is the phrasing of questions. For the math section, the old standards had problem solving questions with verbs such as “select” and “use.” The new standards ask the same questions, changing the word to “apply.”

“Verbs require students to use high-order thinking skills versus previous standards, which was more procedure based,” Andriolo said. “[Common Core] implies you have to use more thinking as a student.”

Strategies for Children, a non-profit organization that promotes early education, sees the shift to PARCC and Common Core as beneficial to young students.

Amy O’Leary, the group’s campaign director, said the new test and curriculum focus on career and college readiness at a younger age. She said educators and parents cannot wait until kindergarten to start teaching children.

“One thing we do see in Common Core literacy lens is that it highlights the importance of world language, which is a key predictor of how they will do in reading proficiency,” said Kelly Kulsrud, the group’s director of reading proficiency

Since PARCC will test students from different demographics and socio-economic backgrounds, O’Leary said educators will need to work together to make sure resources, such as computers, will be available to schools and students where it is most needed.

“It is not a one size fits all solution,” O’Leary said. “Our job is to keep the conversation going and recognize momentum when it is happening across the country.”

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Vocational-Technical Schools, New Interest Brings New Questions

January 31st, 2014

By Carol Kozma, State House correspondent

The traditional route from high school to college to white collar job is taking a detour for some Massachusetts families. But as interest in learning a trade at the state’s vocational-technical schools rises, so do concerns among educators and legislators about the impact on school funding.

According to Department of Education data 42,669 students were enrolled in vocational tech schools in 2003, learning trades in addition to traditional college prep academics. Enrollment rose to 45,720 this year.

Although Roger Hatch, the department’s administrator of school finance programs said the increase itself isn’t significant, the number does not include the increase in applications to vocational schools.

Some voc-tech schools have had to turn students away because they cannot raise enrollment due to the higher costs of vocational programs.

David Fiandaca, director of the Center for Technical Education at Leominster High School said an increase in the number of applications at his school reflects changing attitudes to vocational education.

“In the past vocational school was for students who could not handle (school) academically,” Fiandaca said.

Fiandaca said this year about 130 freshman students are taking a “tech awareness” class, in which they rotate from one vocational trade to another, to explore their options.

Their sophomore year, students choose the vocation to follow. But Fiandaca said the school has to turn down about 50 students who must transfer back into the traditional public high school.

“We don’t have the space, or the instructors, by recommendation of the state. Especially the ones with heavy equipment, safety factor is paramount to anything else,” Fiandaca said.

Technical vocational schools typically have higher budgets to cover the costs of materials needed to teach carpentry, plumbing and other trades. Class sizes are smaller to provide the necessary one-on-one training.

“Our operating budget is larger than a regular comprehensive high school because how are we going to buy all the wood for carpentry school?” said Sheila Harrity, principal of Worcester Technical High School.

She said the school also keeps the student-teacher ratio low.

“The state recommendation for welding or carpentry is 15 (students) to one (teacher), we try to keep it below that because we don’t want any of our students to get hurt,” Harrity said.

The trend toward more expensive voc-tech enrollment has raised questions about its impact on school funding.

The Legislature uses a funding formula to set a foundation budget – the minimum cost for a student’s basic education – for public schools.

Hatch said the foundation budget for traditional schools and vocational schools takes into account the larger expenses of vocational schools. “For the fiscal year 2014 schools, the foundation rate for a vocational school is $12,894 and that compares to a senior high (traditional public school) $8,456,” he said.

Because of the disparity, there is a move to study how different types of schools are funded. The result could mean a change in the state’s funding formula, Chapter 70.

Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, has proposed a bill that would balance the differences in funding for traditional public schools and vocational schools. Garry said Dracut’s charter and vocational schools get funds first, and public schools receive leftovers.

“Basically my ultimate aim is to get more equity between vocational schools and traditional public schools,” she said. “What I have seen is that the traditional schools are always last.”

Garry said she understands that vocational schools have a higher base budget because of costs for materials and salaries, but she wants to make sure that if a vocational school gets a 1 percent increase in funds, the traditional public school gets an equal percent increase.

Garry called her bill a conversation starter; she said she would be open to discuss better ways of ensuring equity in budgets.

Some educators say a single path to equity will be difficult to establish because Chapter 70 funds are distributed differently from district to district.

“The way the money comes to the school varies based on the ability of the school to pay the bill,” said David Ferreira, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.

Ferreira said that community with higher property values and higher income per-capita such as Newton, provide most of the foundation budget through property taxes.

Fitchburg, with a lower per-capita income and property tax base relies more on the state to fill its foundation budget.

The funding issue becomes more complicated when voc-technical schools are part of a school district that includes college prep high schools.

Maureen Binienda, principal at South High Community School, a traditional school in Worcester said because the technical school and the public school are in the same district, the money received from the state is distributed to all the schools in that district.

If a vocational school is part of the public school district, as is the case for Worcester Technical High School, the state sends Chapter 70 funds to the Worcester school committee, said Lauren Greene, spokesperson at the department of education. The committee then approves all budgets for all schools in that district.

Binienda said she did not feel that the vocational technical school was taking money away from her school.

“We always need more money,” she said.

The total budget for South High Community was $8,749,443 for the 2011-2012 academic year with an enrollment of 1,337 students. Worcester Technical High School had a budget of $13,157,236 for 1,366 students.

Ferreira said the increased interest in vocational schools has a variety of reasons.

Generally, vocational schools also have low dropout rates, high attendance rates and high graduation rates, Ferreira said.

Vocational schools have a history of high assessment rates. The education department ranks schools on five levels using graduation and dropout rates among other indicators. The highest performing schools are rated at Level One; the lowest performance is set at Level Five.

This year out of 26 regional vocational school districts in the state, 19 were rated as Level One, four schools were Level Two, and three schools Level Three. This does not include the vocational schools that are part of the public school district.

“The success, I think in a large way, is about motivating kids and teaching them why academics are important,” Ferreira said, noting that students may be more interested in learning trigonometry if it can be applied to methods of cutting textiles in their manufacturing classes.

“The kids are very engaged in education because now they understand the importance of the academics,” he said.

Ferreira said students can explore fields they might want to work in, and once they graduate, they can choose to work, or attend college.

But before they go on, vocational-technical students can put their skills to use for their communities. Students in the carpentry program at the Leominster school are currently refurbishing the Office of Emergency Management in Leominster, and students in the plumbing program are installing a new industrial kitchen in the Spanish American Center.

“We are constantly giving back to the community and thereby justifying our existence,” Fiandaca said.

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Longtime state Rep. Vinny deMacedo says he’s made a point of not changing

December 3rd, 2013

By Alexander Hyacinthe, State House Correspondent , Patriot Ledger State House Bureau

BOSTON —UMass-Boston linguistics professor Donaldo Macedo is as liberal as they come. Born in Cape Verde, Macedo immigrated with his family to Dorchester in the 1960s, coming of age during the height of the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests and his native country’s battle for independence from Portugal.

A linguist, he has penned books with famed lefties Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. So it is a surprise when he praises a Republican state representative who opposed gay marriage and abortion.

It is more of a surprise that the politician is his brother Vinny deMacedo, R-Plymouth. Donaldo has dropped the prefix that was accidentally added to his surname when he immigrated. His brother has kept it – another difference between them.

But political philosophy aside, Macedo believes in his brother.

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Disappointing year for local legislators

December 3rd, 2013

By Loren Savini,  State House Correspondent,  The Sun Chronicle

BOSTON – With the 2013 legislative session all but over, Attleboro area legislators are giving mixed reviews on the highs and lows of the year – from the passage-followed-by-repeal of the tech tax to a move toward a higher minimum wage.

But if there is one thing they all agree upon, it is that more needed to be done.

“We actually accomplished some things, but there’s a lot left on the table,” said Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro.

The Legislature wrapped up business for the year last Wednesday.

It will return to work in January, facing the task of crafting another state budget and following up on unresolved issues, including the melding of House and Senate bills on changes in the welfare system and additional benefits for veterans.

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Minimum wage hike weighed by MetroWest legislators

December 3rd, 2013

By Frankie Barbato, State House correspondent, MetroWest Daily News

Boston – The state Senate’s vote to increase Massachusetts’ minimum wage to $11 has drawn continuing debate among MetroWest’s legislative delegation, whose members have varying opinions on subjects from wage increases for waiters and waitresses to the larger impact the change will have on employers.

“I think it’s one of the reasons why the House refuses to take it up in the last moments (of the session),” state Rep. Chris Walsh, D-Framingham, said Thursday.

The state Senate voted 32-7 on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $11 over the next three years. The increase would be the first since 2008 and take effect on July 1.

If passed by the House, the increase would give Massachusetts the highest minimum wage in the country. In September, California lawmakers approved a $10 minimum wage, and this month New Jersey voters approved a raise to $8.50.

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Uncertain future of racing in Massachusetts worries horsemen

November 25th, 2013

BY Loren Savini, the Sun Chronicle

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Gaming Commission was supposed to take up the mechanics of fusing old racing statutes with new gambling rules at a forum this week.

But nervous horse breeders and racetrack officials wouldn’t stay on track.

Assembled in Hynes Convention Center Wednesday, they wanted to talk about a more basic issue: the uncertain future of horse racing in Massachusetts.

“This year is so terrible because none of us know what’s going to happen,” said Anthony Spadea, president of the New England Horsemen’s Association. “Most of our people don’t have another place to go race.”

With applications in for the state’s lone slot parlor, the commission, which will decide the winner, hosted a horse racing forum Wednesday to discuss matters such as distribution of purse accounts, tax withholding, congressional involvement in the industry and what would happen to purse money if horse racing founders in Massachusetts.

But the uncertainty of whether Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville or another track would get the slot parlor go-ahead kept dominating the conversation, illustrating how the decision about a racino is seen as a life or death issue for racing in the state.

“Most racing seasons are like a roller coaster ride,” said panelist Steve O’Toole, the general manager of Plainridge. “There are ups and downs. This year has been one of those. Today, operating a racetrack is a gamble.”

O’Toole said Plainridge runs at least a million-dollar deficit each year operating races. Key to the track’s survival could be the offer from the gambling corporation Penn National Gaming to buy the struggling harness racecourse if it wins the state’s only slot parlor license.

Without the license, the track would have difficulty staying in business.

In the track’s best years, about 125 horses were purchased (claimed), O’Toole said.

“Last year, we had just half a dozen horses claimed,” he said.

As the conversation about the declining business dominated the forum, commission Chairman Steve Crosby kept trying to turn the subject back to the original intent of the forum, getting out “the information that would build a strategy that would sustain a horse racing industry in Massachusetts for a long, long time.”

But many panelists said that until they knew whether they would be racing next year, they couldn’t discuss the future.

“It looks like we’re going to lose another breeding season in 2013,” said George Brown, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “It’s a big investment – raising a foal for two years. We don’t even know if we’re going to be racing.”

Breeding has steadily declined in Massachusetts since early 2000, the horsemen said.

Mike Tanner, CEO of the United States Trotting Association, said he believed lack of racino legislation, in which slot machines would help subsidize horse racing, was responsible for the drop in breeding numbers.

“These are numbers that would affect our level of business,” he said. “Indiana racino legislation passed in 2007, and their breeding numbers went up 50 percent after it passed. The numbers continue to trend in a positive direction.”

Plainridge officials have sought other forums to make their point.

Last week, they posted a video on YouTube that extolled the positive impact expanded gaming and racino legislation would have on the Plainville track.

The video featured Jolene Andrews, a trainer and driver from North Attleboro, who explained how her livelihood could be saved.

“Year-by-year, the purses get lower and lower, and with Penn National coming, it gives us hope,” she said in the video.

The video narration also mentioned “hundreds of family farms and thousands of acres of open space,” that would be saved if Plainridge was granted racino status.

The video’s message echoed the testimony of the nervous stakeholders at the commission meeting, despite efforts by commissioners to confine the conversation to issues of regulation.

Jennifer Durenburger, the commission’s director of racing, reminded panelists of the “gypsy lifestyle” they had chosen by working in the industry.

“You’re always looking three months ahead,” she said. “We can all tolerate a certain amount of risk, or we wouldn’t be in this industry.”

With forum members still focused on the uncertainty of racing, Crosby put an end to the meeting almost an hour ahead of schedule.

“This is just not the time for all of us to be able to sit down and work out a macro fix to the horse racing legislation,” he said. “We appreciate the way you feel about your industry. We’ll be doing what we can to pitch in.”

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