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Hearings scheduled on constitutional amendments, local income tax, MCAS test

Hearings are scheduled during the next two weeks at the Statehouse on issues including constitutional amendments, a local income tax option and changes to the MCAS test.

The Election Laws Committee at 2 p.m. today will hear testimony on several proposed amendments to the state’s constitution including:

AT-LARGE SENATORS (S 10) — Provides that the state’s 40 senators be elected at-large by all voters.

REDISTRICTING (S 11) — Establishes a non-legislative redistricting commission to draw Massachusetts legislative and congressional districts every 10 years. The constitution now simply gives the Legislature itself the power to draw the districts.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR VACANCY (H 61) — Allows the governor to appoint a lieutenant governor if that position becomes vacant. The governor’s choice would be subject to confirmation by the Legislature.

Currently if the lieutenant governor’s office becomes vacant, there is no provision to appoint a replacement and the office simply remains open until the next regular election.

REVENUE COMMITTEE HEARING — The Revenue Committee, formerly the Taxation Committee, will hold a hearing on Tuesday on dozens of bills including a controversial one allowing cities and towns the option to replace a portion of their property tax by a local income tax (S 1304).

Other items include proposals to provide an income tax credit of up to 50 percent of the cost of the purchase of an alternative fuel vehicle (S 1355); allowing communities to freeze the amount of property tax owed by seniors age 65 and over who have owned a principal residence in the municipality for at least 15 years (S 1453); allowing the state to impose a graduated income tax with higher rates on taxpayers in higher-income brackets and lower rates on those in lower ones (S 17); allowing municipalities to exempt persons age 75 and older from paying the portion of the community’s property taxes used for local education (H 2488); and allowing a community to include on its property tax bills a check-off box permitting taxpayers to voluntarily donate $1 or more to a rainy day fund for the community (S 1408).

EDUCATION COMMITTEE HEARING — The Education Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. April 9 on bills to abolish, modify or weaken the state requirement that high school students must pass the MCAS test in order to graduate.

MCAS opponents, including some teachers, say the requirement is unfair and misguided, arguing that no single test should be used as a graduation requirement.

MCAS supporters say the tests are useful, reasonable and objective and will ensure that the billions of dollars spent on education are producing results.

— Beacon Hill Roll Call

MAKING IT OFFICIAL: Many of the thousands of bills filed for the 2013-2104 session would designate the state’s official something.

Sponsors of these proposals say that the measures are often filed on behalf of students as a way to teach them the legislative process.

Among them are groundhog (no number yet), Ms. G. at the Drumlin Farm operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society; shellfish (S 1629), the quahog, a hard-shelled clam which also served as a form of currency for Native Americans; textile (S 2862), gingham because the Town of Clinton at one time was a world leader in manufacturing cotton gingham fabric; dish (S 1872), New England clam “chowdah”; sculptor (H 2812), Cyrus Dallin, who lived in Arlington the last 40 years of his life and is best known for Native American subjects and the statue of Paul Revere in the North End; rock song (no numbers yet), “Roadrunner” by Modern Lovers and “Dream On” by Aerosmith have both been proposed; sandwich (H 2868), Fluffernutter which combines peanut butter and marshmallow fluff; cowboy (H 2905), Rex Trailer, the Massachusetts children’s television host who died in January; recreational and team sport (S 1627), volleyball which was invented in 1895 in Holyoke by William Morgan. Legislation making basketball the official state sport was signed into law in August 2007.

BILLS FILED: Among the thousands of other bills filed for consideration in the 2013-2014 Legislature are these.

SCRATCH TICKETS (S 105) — Requires the Lottery to develop a second-chance game that awards prizes for nonwinning scratch tickets, in order to encourage recycling and prevent the tickets from being littered in and around stores.

ADOPT-A-SENIOR (S 306) — Establishes a statewide “adopt-a-senior” volunteer program to assist seniors with snow removal and property or home maintenance services. Details include creation of a registry of volunteers.

BAN FORMER LEGISLATORS FROM LOBBYING FOR THREE YEARS (S 1505) — Increases from one year to three years after leaving their jobs, the “cooling-off” period that former state employees and former elected officials, including legislators, must wait before going into the lobbying business.

SALARY CAP (S 1504) — Prohibits employees of any state authority from earning more than the governor, whose current salary is $137,315. State authorities include the MBTA, MassPort, the Health Connector and the Teacher’s Retirement. The bill allows the increases if the authority provides a 30-day public comment period and holds a public hearing.

UNDERAGE DRINKING (S 761) — Allows police officers to take into protective custody, with or without their consent, minors under 21 who have consumed alcohol.

FLAGS AT HALF MAST (S 1561) — Requires the state flag to be flown at half mast following the death of a police officer or firefighter killed in the line of duty.

PRISONERS PAY $2 PER DAY (S 1173) — Requires non-indigent prisoners to pay the state $2 per day to defray the costs of their incarceration.

SEX CHANGE (S 813) — Prohibits state funds from being used to pay for sex change surgery, laser hair removal or hormone replacement therapy for any inmates in the prison system.

— Beacon Hill Roll Call

PARKING ON A HILL (S 949) — Allows communities to prohibit drivers from parking their vehicles on an incline unless they turn their front wheels diagonally against the curb in order to prevent the vehicle from rolling down. The proposal imposes up to a $300 fine on violators.

ABOLISH $25 FEE TO APPEAL SPEEDING AND TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS (S 713) — Modifies a current law that imposes a $25 fee on anyone who challenges a non-criminal traffic violation in court. The bill would waive the fee if the driver is found not guilty.

ELDERLY ABUSE — Requires mandated reporters, including doctors, nurses, social workers, police and firefighters, to report incidents of compulsive hoarding by senior citizens.

Hoarding is acquisition of and unwillingness to discard large quantities of items that cover the living areas of the home and threaten the health and safety of the resident.

LIVE THEATER CREDIT — Would give a tax credit to companies producing live stage shows in Boston in order to attract more of them to the state.

NO SMOKING AT HOME — Would prohibit smoking in all condominiums, apartments and multi-family homes and allow it only in single-family, stand-alone residences.

BAN FUNERAL DISRUPTION — Would impose up to a two-year prison sentence and/or $2,000 fine on anyone who causes a disturbance within 1,000 feet of a military funeral, procession or burial.

BATHROOM BREAKS — Would require the MBTA to give its drivers paid bathroom breaks of 10 minutes for every four hours worked in a day.

BAN CELL PHONES — Would ban the use of all hand-held cell phones while driving and allow only hands-free ones.

NO SPRAY PAINT — Would impose up to a two-year prison sentence and/or $250 fine on minors under 17 possessing spray paint if they intend to use it to create graffiti.

REDUCING VEHICLE IDLING TIME — Would reduce from five minutes to three minutes the length of time drivers are allowed to let their vehicle idle.

TAX DEDUCTION FOR GLUTEN ALLERGY SUFFERERS — Would provide up to a $5,000 tax deduction for the cost of gluten-free food that is in excess of the cost of food containing gluten.

DON’T CONFISCATE GUNS — Would prohibit the government from confiscating lawfully owned firearms during a state of emergency.

BAN PLASTIC BAGS — Would ban the use of plastic bags by retail stores.

— Beacon Hill Roll Call

Gov. Deval Patrick in January signed several bills that were approved by the Legislature in the final days of the 2012 session. Among them are:

MAKE ANTIFREEZE TASTE BITTER (S 88) — Expands the current law requiring that any antifreeze in small retail containers that contains sweet-tasting ethylene glycol also include denatonium benzoate, a substance that makes the antifreeze taste bitter. The measure would expand the requirement to include the large wholesale 55-gallon drums that service stations use when servicing a vehicle.

Supporters say the sweet taste of antifreeze is a major reason for its fatal ingestion by young children, pets and wildlife. They noted that sweet-tasting antifreeze often leaks from consumers’ cars after they get the fluid changed at a service station.

TAMPERING WITH WATER SYSTEMS (S 2371) — Increases the fine and imprisonment imposed on anyone convicted of tampering with water systems in Massachusetts. The current punishment is a $300 fine and/or up to one year in jail. The new law raises the fine to $5,000 and hikes the prison sentence to up to five years.

Supporters say the current fines and jail time are small and out of date. They argue the hikes are needed in order to get serious about this crime in a post-9/11 world where terrorists are capable of destroying and/or poisoning water systems.

FINGERPRINT-BASED BACKGROUND CHECKS ON TEACHERS (H 4307) — Requires that national fingerprint-based background checks be part of a background check on all applicants for teaching positions and any other public or private school jobs that have direct contact with children.

The measure would also applies to family child care, center-based child care and after-school programs.

Prior law only required a statewide background check that covers crimes committed in Massachusetts.  The measure requires current teachers and other employees to be fingerprinted prior to the 2016-2017 school year.

PARKING METER REVENUE (H 901) — Allows cities and towns to use revenue from their parking meters for the purchase or lease of any commuter shuttle or shuttle services between a municipal parking lot and public transportation.

Prior law allows the revenue to be used only for the acquisition and maintenance of parking lots and for traffic control and safety. Supporters say the bill would expand the use of commuter shuttles, which will in turn increase the use of public transportation.

ALLOW DOMESTIC VIOLENCE VICTIMS TO BREAK THEIR APARTMENT LEASE (S 2402) — Allows victims of domestic violence to break their apartment lease without a penalty if they notify the owner in writing that they or a member of their household is a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking.

The measure also requires property owners to change the tenant’s exterior locks if the tenant or occupants reasonably believe they are in danger.

Supporters said the measure is long overdue and is designed to make it financially easier for victims move if their assailant knows where they are living.

ORAL CANCER DRUGS (H 4349) — Requires insurers to provide the same coverage for oral cancer drugs that they currently provide for intravenous chemotherapy.

Currently, many insurance companies cover the two treatments differently. They cover intravenous chemotherapy like many other treatments, with plan members paying a flat co-pay. However, oral chemotherapy drugs are considered a pharmacy benefit and the patient pays a percentage, depending on the plan, of the cost of the drug.

Supporters said this law will lower the cost of oral therapy for patients, who often end up paying thousands of dollars per year for these drugs. They noted the pills are often more effective than chemotherapy.

VIRTUAL SCHOOLS (S 2467) — Regulates “virtual schools” in Massachusetts. Virtual schools allow students to “attend” an online-only public school. These schools are aimed at creating an alternative education option with an individualized approach for students in unique situations including those who are physically disabled, seriously ill, gifted and talented or bullied.

Massachusetts currently has only one virtual school, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in Greenfield. It has 450 students and includes kindergarten through eighth grade. Provisions include limiting to 10 the number of these schools that may operate at any one time and capping the total number of virtual school students at 2 percent of the state’s public school population, or approximately 19,000.

SABBATICALS (H 4295) — Reduces from seven to six years the period of time a faculty member must work at a state university before being eligible for a sabbatical. The measure is designed to make faculty sabbatical qualifications at state universities consistent with those used by private colleges.

LICENSE AND REGULATE NATUROPATHIC DOCTORS (H 4368) Gov. Deval Patrick in January “pocket vetoed” a bill that would create a state board to license and regulate naturopathic doctors. A bill is considered pocket vetoed if the Legislature has finished its two-year session and the governor does not sign it after 10 days.

The measure requires that these doctors have extensive training in a naturopathic program at an approved naturopathic medical college. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians defines naturopathic doctors as “primary care and specialty doctors who address the underlying cause of disease through effective, individualized natural therapies that integrate the healing powers of body, mind and spirit.”

The Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors supported the bill and noted on its website, “Licensing would allow NDs to provide the depth of health care that they are trained to give, providing … better service and more treatment options. Most importantly, it would protect the health care consumer by preventing untrained people from calling themselves naturopathic doctors.”

The Massachusetts Medical Society opposed the bill and testified against it at a hearing. It said in a written statement, “Naturopathy is not a branch of medicine. It is a hodge podge of nutritional advice, home remedies and discredited treatments … Licensure is interpreted by the public as an endorsement of the field. Unsuspecting parents who lack sophistication in science or medicine couldn’t be faulted for having their sick children treated by a practitioner who is licensed and purports to use safe and natural healing.”

Some supporters of the bill argue the Massachusetts Medical Society lobbied heavily against the bill because it is afraid of legitimate competition from naturopathic doctors.

Jason Lefferts, Director of Communications for the Governor’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, issued a statement on behalf of the governor. He said, “The legislation proposing a Board of Naturopathy called for the Board to be created in the Division of Professional Licensure. However, the makeup of the proposed Board and its functions as outlined, including the composition of the board to include the Chairman of the Board of Medicine, the Commissioner of Public Health and other professionals under the Department of Public Health, would be a better fit for the Department of Public Health.”

Under state law, the governor could not amend the bill to reflect his changes and send it back to the Legislature for action because the 2012 legislative session had already ended.

— Beacon Hill Roll Call

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