Posts Tagged ‘Katie Lannan’

Special Report: Openness and Productivity on Beacon Hill

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

USA522letterBWPrintSession Featured Big Bills, Less Public View

BOSTON – Not long after state lawmakers ended their formal work for 2011 with a near-midnight November session, they began congratulating themselves for an exemplary season of legislating.

Among those accomplishments: casinos with the promise of new jobs and tax revenue, a law allowing municipalities to negotiate health insurance for public workers, balancing a budget in tough economic times and stabilizing the state’s pension plan.

“I would say this was one of the most impressive sessions over the past 30 years in terms of legislation passed,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.

But how much really got done this year, and, more importantly how much of the legislative process that moved these bills to law took place in public?

Numbers can be interpreted in different ways. Of the 206 bills passed in 2011, 39 – or 19 percent – affect the entire state – many in significant ways. Another 25 percent of the bills signed by Gov. Deval Patrick established sick leave banks for public employees. The rest were administrative laws pertaining to individual cities and towns, such as alcohol licenses and land transfers.

But behind the issue of legislative productivity looms a larger question about the process that moved various bills down the road, or left them on the roadside. A survey by the Boston University Statehouse Program of 19 major legislative committees that shape and move legislation found this process increasingly takes place outside the public view.

Among the findings:

– The staff for 15 of the committees polled said some voting is done through e-mails rather than in open executive sessions. The staff of 10 committees said the votes were not available to the public. State law requires that roll-call votes in executive sessions be recorded and made public. But committee rules do not address e-mail voting.

– Minutes and other details of committee meetings were not available from 18 of the committees, according to their staff. State law does not require such documentation of legislative committees, although it is required by other Massachusetts.

– Among the lack of documentation are records of attendance by committee members. Observers say fewer committee members now show up for public hearings as the work of the committees takes place through phone discussion or e-mail polls.


Special Report: In the Public Eye

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Massachusetts Lags Behind in Legislative Public Access

By Katie Lannan and Adam Tamburin

Although the Web has made some Statehouse information and online videos of hearings a click away for interested citizens, the use of the Internet has become a double-edged sword, limiting other aspects of transparency.

Staff members on 15 of 22 major committees surveyed by the Boston University Statehouse Program said members sometimes vote via e-mail. Rules about public access to these emails results are vague. Ten of the committee staff polled said the votes were not available to the public.

Lawmakers are increasingly absent from their committee’s public hearings. Many sessions are conducted with a fraction of the committee members present. Even sponsors of legislation are often no shows.

The extent of the problem is hard to measure. Only six of 22 committees surveyed said they took attendance. Few make available the minutes of their sessions.

Some legislators and observers say shrinking and roll call voting are symptoms of a trend that concentrates the decision making to the legislative leadership.

Peter Ubertaccio, professor of political science at Stonehill College, says this trend is a natural product of a firm political majority. Democrats have overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate

“It’s probably par for the course,” he said.

Ubertaccio said committee chairs use their power to set schedules that decide the fate of a bill in conjunction with party leaders; the chair can sit on bills that are controversial or don’t fit into the leadership’s agenda.

“Typically, bills that the leadership doesn’t want to come to the floor don’t come to the floor,” he said. “They can do that in a variety of ways that are outside of the public viewing.”

There was an attempt, led by Republicans at the beginning of the session to require all committee votes be posted on the Legislature’s website. It was defeated. Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, plans to propose new rules that would require committees to meet in person and produce records that would illuminate the process of lawmaking for Massachusetts citizens.

“It’s the democratic process. I mean, we represent people,” Winslow said. “I think it’s important for government to be open and transparent to the best [extent] that it can be.”

But it’s not just a partisan issue. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is sponsoring a bill that would make more public records available online. Eldridge said government transparency is important at all levels.

“There are decisions being made every day that impact people’s lives and businesses,” Eldridge said. “That information should be as transparent as possible.”

Massachusetts residents can find the full text of a bill on the Legislature’s website and follow its status. Viewers can watch live and archived webcasts of floor proceedings and selected committee hearings.

But Massachusetts remains behind the times when compared to other states, Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that all states except for Rhode Island offer live webcasts of legislative sessions, with 33 states archiving them and 35 posting live webcasts of committee hearings.

Twenty-one other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, make it easier for interested citizens to follow the process through bill tracking email subscriptions, which send out updates when the legislature acts on a particular piece of legislation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also says 14 states offer other email subscription services, such as Maine’s list for notification of public hearings.

Twelve states allow citizens to create personalized lists of bills they want to follow, free of charge, with another five states offering the same service for a fee. Massachusetts does not provide this service.

Eldridge said inaccessibility of information is often an unintended consequence of cutbacks. Many of the legislative aides surveyed said they don’t have the staff to keep formal minutes.

Whatever the reasons, Eldridge said a lack of openness can still foster a cynical and skeptical electorate.

“Unfortunately, the government is afraid of providing the information to the public or they don’t want to let them know all the reasons for why decisions are being made,” he said. “The fact that there have been some scandals at the government level contributes to that.”

Murphy resigns House whip post, blasts DeLeo

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

December 7, 2011

BOSTON — State Rep. Charles Murphy stepped down from his post as House majority whip yesterday, then blasted House Speaker Robert DeLeo, calling him an ineffective leader who throttles dissent.

Murphy resigned during a closed Democratic caucus, saying it spared House members a “difficult and uncomfortable” vote on his removal, which DeLeo was seeking.

“I wasn’t willing to put the members through a vote such as that,” the Burlington Democrat told reporters after the caucus. “I find that unpalatable, so I decided to resign my position.”

It had been expected that DeLeo would oust Murphy during the caucus, called during the Legislature’s winter recess, after Murphy had reportedly been talking with colleagues about his interest in someday becoming speaker.

Murphy resigned before DeLeo’s leadership changes were announced.

State Rep. Byron Rushing of Boston will replace Murphy as majority whip.

In a letter to DeLeo announcing his resignation from leadership, Murphy alleged that House members have been marginalized, dissent discouraged and decision-making centralized in DeLeo’s inner circle. He also said DeLeo did not return his telephone call placed before the first news report of Murphy’s possible demotion surfaced, and the two have not spoken since.

Murphy called DeLeo’s decision to remove him from his position — which carries a $15,000 stipend — a “disservice” to the House that “reflects poorly on you as a leader.”

Murphy denied that he had been disloyal to DeLeo, but said he had been meeting with other representatives to talk about the future of the House. Murphy said he did not discuss DeLeo or attempt to seek votes for the position of speaker.

“In their view, my actions may disrupt their plan of an orderly transfer of the gavel when the time comes for Speaker DeLeo to move on,” Murphy said.

DeLeo, who has said he plans to stay in office as speaker until reaching his term limit in 2016, would not discuss his reasons for wanting Murphy off the leadership team.

“As speaker, one of the jobs I have is to put forth an agenda and I want to go in there with a leadership team that I think is best to pursue that agenda,” DeLeo said after the caucus.

After resigning, Murphy was assigned to joint committees on election laws, tourism and veterans’ affairs as a regular member.

“I will resume my position on the back bench with my head held high, for I have done nothing wrong,” Murphy said. “Regardless of the speaker’s actions today, I will continue my efforts to foster a collaborative discourse in this building that will best serve my constituents and the commonwealth as a whole.”

State Rep. Jennifer Benson, of Lunenburg, said she would support Murphy as he moves into committee work.

“I really have a lot of respect for Rep. Murphy,” she said. “I think he’s done a great job in his current role.”

Other leadership changes approved in the caucus bring local Democrats to new positions.

Benson will become vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses.

“Small business is something I care deeply about,” she said. “That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot in the district.”

Rep. Tom Golden of Lowell was appointed vice chairman of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, and Lowell Rep. David Nangle was named vice chairman of the House Committee on Ethics.

“I’m grateful to the speaker for moving me back into the leadership and look forward to working on the agenda in the upcoming year,” Nangle said.

This report includes material from the State House News Service.

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Auditor: Office was ‘lax’ under DeNucci

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

December 2, 2011

BOSTON — State Auditor Suzanne Bump told a group of news executives yesterday that she took over an auditor’s office lacking in competence and planning after being run by fellow Democrat Joe DeNucci for more than two decades.

“With one leadership team in place for 24 years, the office had become complacent and a bit lax,” she said in an address to the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It still did very meaningful work — cases were still being prosecuted, recommendations were still being implemented that came out of the audits, but the work lacked vigor and it lacked rigor.”

Bump, who won the auditor’s race in 2010 after DeNucci retired, said one of her first acts after taking office in January was to commission a review by the National State Auditors Association of past audits and procedures.

Bump said she had expected the review to find problems, but was surprised by just how many there were.

“It was like taking your car to Jiffy Lube for a scheduled oil change and tire rotation, and being told the electrical system is a fire hazard, the brake pads will fail at the next stoplight, and oh, by the way, the engine fell out when it was on the lift,” she said.

Bump said the review turned up deficiencies in planning, documentation and reporting of audits, as well as in staff competence.

To have other government agencies take the auditor’s recommendations seriously, Bump said she needed to “retool the office.”

“New personnel, new procedures, new training, new professional development, and all are designed to help us focus more effectively on areas of government spending where the potential risk to taxpayers is greatest,” she said.

DeNucci could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bump said her office is now focused on examining tax breaks for businesses, which she said total more than $2 billion each year.

“Maybe it actually stimulates economic activity and job creation,” she said. “But we found that for more than a billion dollars of those on an annual basis, there are no measures of success. We don’t actually know if the business benefit of the break has a corresponding public benefit.”

Bump said her office also plans to keep a close eye on the Gaming Commission created by the recent expansion of casino gambling in Massachusetts.

“We are going to be auditing the work of that commission to see that they are following the statute and the internal rules that are going to be developed,” she said.

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Bikers make case for relaxing motorcycle-helmet law

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

December 1, 2011

BOSTON — With the Legislature again considering relaxing the state’s helmet laws, some area motorcyclists say not wearing a helmet should be respected as a matter of personal choice.

“It’s not a death wish, it’s a life choice,” said Paul Cote, the New England region delegate to the American Motorcyclist Association Congress. “The people that ride should be adults and should be able to decide.”

Massachusetts law requires all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear helmets, but bills proposed by Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, and Rep. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, would change that, requiring only those under age 21 to wear helmets.

Cote said there is an economic incentive to pass the legislation because motorcyclists travel to nearby states that do not require helmets and spend money while there.

New Hampshire has no motorcycle-helmet law, while Maine and Connecticut require protective headgear for all riders under age 18. Rhode Island law requires riders under age 21 to wear helmets.

“What you’re missing in Massachusetts is with 185,000 registered bikes, a large portion of them are going out of state every weekend to go ride without a helmet in New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island,” Cote said. “There’s no wall around Massachusetts.”

Lowell motorcyclist Paul Belley said in a phone interview that he often rides to New Hampshire with friends. Belley and his biker buddies remove their helmets as soon as they cross the state line, he said.

“We’ll get a bunch of guys together, stop at a restaurant, do some sightseeing,” said Belley, 56, a charter-boat captain, musician and truck driver. “We do spend money. Bikers are very, very generous.”

Belley said although he prefers to feel the wind in his face on a nice day, he will keep his helmet on in New Hampshire if it is cold outside.

Another Lowell motorcyclist, Michael Mombourquette, compared helmets to the leather jackets many riders wear — safer, but not necessarily comfortable.

“In the summertime, I will go 90 mph with a T-shirt on if it’s hot outside,” said Mombourquette, 46. “If I fell over, there would be pieces of me all up the road. It’s the same idea with the helmet.”

But B.J. Williams, manager of the prevention department of the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, said there is more to consider than personal choice. He estimated that $12 billion was spent on head injuries around the country last year and said wearing a helmet reduces head injury by nearly 70 percent.

“We look at it from the aspect of safety for everybody on the road,” he said. “Whether it’s somebody who’s driving or someone on a motorcycle, we want to do whatever we can to provide safety and protect them.”

Mombourquette, a former Billerica police officer who now works for Verizon, said finding a balance among personal freedom, safety and social responsibility should be up to individuals.

“If I wipe out and it could have been prevented, I could wind up a vegetable in a hospital for 25 years being supported by tax dollars,” he said. “That’s what you have to consider. It’s something you have to wrestle with.”

Staff writer Chris Camire contributed to this report.

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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.”

Two robberies, two brave officers; only one lives to see honor

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

November 19, 2011


Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee (left) congratulates Hanna Medal of Valor recipient Sgt. Stephen Morrill (right).

BOSTON — A Lowell police officer who dodged bullets to chase a bank-robbery suspect was one of 27 law-enforcement officers hon­ored yesterday by Gov. Deval Patrick, with the ceremony’s top honor bestowed upon a Woburn police officer and Wilmington resident who was killed while responding to a separate rob­bery.

Lowell police Sgt. Stephen Morrill received a Medal of Valor at the 28th annual Trooper George L. Hanna Memorial Awards for his actions responding to an attempted robbery at the Lowell Co-operative Bank on Hurd Street in August 2010. The robbery suspect attempted to lure Morrill into the bank to take him hostage, before running away. Morrill followed and was shot at twice.

“The guy tried to kill him twice, but Steve was able to use his training and his abilities and his knowledge and was able to prevent that from happening,” said Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee, who nominated Morrill for the award.

Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Beth Heffernan, who presented the awards, said Morrill followed the suspect closely through city streets until additional officers arrived for backup.

The suspect committed suicide before police could reach him.

“A police officer can never know what danger lies ahead when he or she responds to a call,” Heffernan said at the Statehouse ceremony. “The actions of Sgt. Stephen Morrill, relentlessly pursuing an armed gunman who twice fired at him, were the epitome of determination and bravery.” Morrill, a 24-year veteran of the department, said he was humbled to receive the award.

“I go to work every day, and I just do my job,” he said.  “Anybody in the Lowell Police Department in that same situation would have done the same thing. Our training kicks and we just do our job.”

The Hanna Awards commemorate Massachusetts State Trooper George L. Hanna, who died in 1983 after being shot multiple times by a man whose car he stopped for questioning in Auburn.

Patrick said the awards are given to officers who have demonstrated bravery that goes above and beyond expectations.

“In recognition of the courageous and selfless actions these heroes displayed, Massachusetts owes them a debt of gratitude,” he said.

Morrill is the second Lowell officer to receive a Hanna Award. Officer Howard Osborne earned a Medal of Honor in 1991 for his response to an armed robbery of a grocery store.

Officer John “Jack” Maguire, a Woburn police officer killed while responding to a botched jewelry robbery in December 2010, posthumously received the ceremony’s top honor. The family of Maguire, who lived in Wilmington, was presented with a Medal of Honor award. Police said Maguire was shot and killed by Domenic Cinelli, a career criminal who also died in the exchange of gunfire.

Maguire’s killing led to an overhaul of the state parole board. Patrick fired five members of the board who voted in 2008 to grant parole to Cinelli despite his history of violent crime.

Cinelli had been sentenced to life in prison in Suffolk County and later received two concurrent life sentences for crimes committed in Middlesex County. The officer’s slaying also prompted renewed calls for tougher laws against habitual offenders. Earlier this week, the House passed a measure that would prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a third serious felony from being considered for parole. The state Senate included a similar provision as part of a broader anti-crime package. A final bill is possible sometime after the first of the year.

Officers from Boston, Fall River, Everett, Chelsea were also presented with awards for bravery, as were officers from the Massachusetts State Police, FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Some material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Officials: Redistricting changes couldn’t be stopped

Friday, November 18th, 2011

November 18, 2011

BOSTON — Local politicians say they were powerless to change a new congressional map that separated Leominster into a different district from its neighboring cities of Fitchburg and Gardner.

The three cities are currently represented by U.S. Rep. John Olver of Amherst, who is retiring next year. The new plan moves Leominster to U.S. Rep. James McGovern’s Worcester-based district, while U.S. Rep Niki Tsongas of Lowell will represent Fitchburg and Gardner.

“We looked at it, myself and Sen. (Jennifer) Flanagan, to try and see if all of us could go within the Tsongas district or the McGovern one,” said state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Fitchburg Democrat. “But it’s very, very difficult, almost impossible.”

Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat, said she advocated before the map was drawn to keep the cities together. After it was released last Monday, she said it would have been too hard to change while keeping the populations in each district equal, a requirement of any potential changes to the map.

“If we were going to try to bring Leominster up into the district, it was going to be very hard to find 45,000 other people,” she said. “The state officials really did try.”

Gov. Deval Patrick will soon have the congressional redistricting plan on his desk, following final passage of the plan in the Legislature on Wednesday night.

Massachusetts lost one of its 10 congressional seats because of population shifts in the 2010 U.S. Census. Leominster, Fitchburg and Gardner have traditionally been in the same district, which local politicians said made sense because of similar demographics and political interests, including a regional transportation authority.

Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella called the split “the worst political thing that could ever happen to our region,” but said the area’s municipal leaders had little recourse once the map was determined.

“The mayors all agreed, but we’re limited as to what mechanisms we could use,” he said.

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong said she, Mazzarella and Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke all made calls to the state and U.S. congressional delegations requesting that the cities stay together.

“All three of us would prefer that we’re in the same district,” she said. “But the response was that this is final right now.”

State Rep. Rich Bastien, a Gardner Republican, said the legislative redistricting committee considered input from other legislators when redrawing the state House and Senate maps but did not hear their concerns when it came to crafting the congressional map.

“They basically showed us the map on Monday and said, ‘Here it is,'” he said.

Bastien voted in favor of an alternative redistricting proposal offered by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading. The Republican map would have moved several Worcester County communities into McGovern’s district.

The GOP plan would not have consolidated Fitchburg, Leominster and Gardner, however. Under the proposal, Fitchburg and Leominster would have been part of Tsongas’ district, while Gardner would have been in McGovern’s.

“In neither proposal were the three cities going to be together, which was disappointing,” said Flanagan, who voted against the Republican amendment. “I said to Sen. Tarr, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do, but you still split my three cities apart.'”

Flanagan said the three cities will still be united in terms of legislative needs, despite being in separate districts.

“I think it’s important that the state delegation, including myself and the representatives, work hard to make sure the two congressmen understand the three cities are still going to be attached,” she said.

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Sick-time debate to hit fever pitch?

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

November 17, 2011

BOSTON — As an hourly worker, Teresa Jones faces a tough decision when she catches a bad cold.

“I either have to go to work and risk making someone else sick, or not go to work and risk not having enough money for rent,” said Jones, a personal-care attendant for Intercity Home Care, an elder-care agency with offices in Lowell.

Jones may no longer have to make that choice if a bill requiring Massachusetts employers to provide a minimum of seven paid sick days a year for all workers is enacted.

Supporters of the legislation say sick days are a necessary benefit for all workers. Opponents say it will burden small businesses.

Connecticut will become the first state in the nation to require businesses to offer paid sick leave in January of next year when it begins mandating the benefit for service workers.

The Massachusetts legislation has been lingering on Beacon Hill for three years, but backers are optimistic it will be enacted next year. Jones and other labor advocates spoke at the Statehouse yesterday in support of the measure.

Elizabeth Toulan, director of the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition, compared the fight to efforts to establish minimum-wage and child-labor laws.

“It’s not surprising that something like this would take multiple sessions to make the kind of progress that we’re looking for,” she said.

One small business owner, Dean Cycon of the Orange-based coffee company Dean’s Beans, spoke in favor of the bill, calling paid sick leave an important benefit.

“It’s not easy for a small business to offer a broad benefits package, yet we don’t see a conflict between doing the right thing and earning a profit,” he said.

But Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst said the majority of the small-business owners represented by his organization think the requirement would create a financial burden.

“When we contact our members on a whole range of issues, nothing causes as much opposition and outrage than state government-mandated paid sick days,” he said. “It’s extremely costly, and small-business owners are just united against it.”

Hurst said the measure would be especially harmful to businesses in border communities, such as Lowell and Fitchburg, where competitors from New Hampshire can lure customers away with lower prices.

“Small businesses up in Lowell are competing every day with businesses just over the border,” he said. “They don’t have paid sick- day requirements. They don’t have the high minimum-wage requirements that we have, and they don’t have sales tax. It’s just another impediment for our small businesses to be successful and to continue employing people.”

Despite the cost, state Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, who co-sponsored the bill, argues that paid sick days would not hurt businesses.

“We are really working hard to get businesses on board to show that it doesn’t affect them and, in fact, probably is more helpful to them than not, because you produce loyalty among your employees if you can provide some sick time,” she said.

Reps OK controversial transgender bill

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

By Chris Camire and Katie LannanThe Lowell Sun

November 16, 2011

BOSTON — Transgender people in Massachusetts could soon enjoy protection from discrimination after House lawmakers voted 95-58 last night in favor of a transgender equality bill.

The bill defines gender identity as separate from a person’s physical sex at birth, creating protection against gender-identity discrimination in employment, schools, financial transactions and housing.

All but one Republican — Dan Winslow of Norfolk — voted against bill.

The bill also drew heavy opposition from Greater Lowell Democrats, including Lowell Reps. Tom Golden, Kevin Murphy and David Nangle, Jim Miceli of Wilmington and Colleen Garry of Dracut.

The vote followed an hourlong debate. Lawmakers had earlier agreed to cut off debate at 8:50 p.m., meaning many proposed amendments were not considered.

Garry called stifling the debate “the most absurd thing I have ever seen in my 17 years” in the Legislature.

“At least give people the opportunity to voice their concerns,” she said.

The bill now heads to the Senate. Gov. Deval Patrick has said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.

Eleven Republican lawmakers blasted the proposal at a Statehouse press conference yesterday morning, saying it would hurt small businesses and take time away from more important matters facing the Legislature in the waning hours of its formal session.

“This extreme government overreach ends up costing small businesses a great deal of time and money,” said Rep. Marc Lombardo of Billerica.

Lombardo said the legislation would force small-business owners who employ transgender individuals to keep them on staff, even if they make customers uncomfortable and hurt business.

Under one hypothetical scenario, Lombardo said a day- care employee who suddenly began identifying as a member of the opposite sex might make parents uncomfortable, prompting them to remove their children from the center. In another scenario, Lombardo said customers might stop patronizing a small neighborhood grocery store if a male employee begins wearing female clothing.

In such cases, he said employers would have no recourse if the bill were passed.

“What can you do?” Lombardo said. “Nothing. You close your doors, you lose your customers, and you go out of business.”

Gunner Scott, director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said the bill is about equality, not business. He said his organization receives calls from people every week who have been fired or harassed on the job or denied housing due to being transgender.

“Transgender people also need to go back to work, and we need to find jobs, as well,” said Scott, who cheered the bill’s passage with about 50 other supporters at the Statehouse last night. “Transgender people are human beings, and discrimination is happening in our state.”

With the Legislature scheduled to break for its winter recess today, Republicans said lawmakers should use the remaining hours to focus on job creation.

“People are deeply concerned about their future,” said Rep. Paul Adams, an Andover Republican whose district includes part of Tewksbury. “They’ve unequivocally told me over the last 10 months that I’ve been in office that they want me to help grow the economy.”

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