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The new consensus
Donít be fooled by the friction. By and large, the Massachusetts House and Senate are on the same ideological page.

Canít the Massachusetts House and Senate just get along?

As legislative business wound down in 2005, the buzz on Beacon Hill had Senate president Robert Travaglini (D-Boston) and his colleagues growing frustrated with the slow pace set by Travagliniís House counterpart, Speaker Sal DiMasi (D-Boston). And while the new year is still young, there are fresh signs of friction, especially in the debate over how to extend health care to the stateís uninsured. DiMasi wants to impose an employer mandate, which would tax employers who donít cover their workers. But Travaglini, along with Governor Mitt Romney, thinks such a step would be economically foolhardy.

The battle seems to be escalating. Just last week, three key senators ó Richard Moore, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care financing; Senate Ways and Means chair Therese Murray; and Minority Leader Brian Lees ó pointedly questioned the Houseís approach in a letter released to the media. It was a striking show of brinksmanship, and a possible sign that things are about to get ugly.

Unless, of course, they donít. Yes, relations between the Senate and House appear to be somewhat tense, especially with health care dominating the legislative agenda. But the fact remains that, more than at any other point in recent memory, the Massachusetts House and Senate share a common vision for state government. The old model for legislative relations ó in which the conservative House acted as a fiscal and social brake on the more liberal Senate ó is fast becoming obsolete. Instead, the two chambers seem broadly united by a kind of pragmatic progressive ethos. Consider the following:

The Cultural Facilities Fund is about to become a reality. First proposed by Speaker DiMasi when the Houseís economic-stimulus package was released last August, the fund would direct $500 million into the stateís artistic and cultural organizations over the next decade, using a mixture of public and private funds, and without incurring any new cost to taxpayers (See "A Bold Proposal," Editorial, August 5, 2005). The Senateís economic-stimulus plan, which was released later in the fall, includes a Cultural Facilities Fund proposal that is virtually indistinguishable from that put forward by the House.

Much work still needs to be done to reconcile the Senateís stimulus package, which totals nearly $500 million, with the Houseís, which has a relatively modest $336 million price tag. Barring a shocking last-minute twist, however, the Cultural Facilities Fund will be part of whatever package the legislature sends to Governor Romney later this year.

Syringe legalization is moving forward. Massachusetts is currently one of just three states in which syringes arenít available for over-the-counter purchase at pharmacies, a situation that has helped make HIV and hepatitis-infection rates higher than they might otherwise be (See "Sticking point," November 11, 2005). Efforts to change the status quo went nowhere when Tom Finneran, a staunch social conservative, ran the House. But last November, the House approved a bill that would legalize syringe sales and decriminalize syringe possession in a lopsided 115-37 vote.

Now itís the Senateís turn. Some senators reportedly want to see more provisions for safe disposal; others worry that legalizing needles might encourage drug use. But following a Senate briefing scheduled for this week, these concerns may well be alleviated. Either way, Senator Susan Fargo, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, promises that despite other legislative business ó health care, economic stimulus, the stateís supplemental budget ó her chamber will vote on legalization soon. "There is a clock ticking on the clean-needles bill, because every day we delay, more people get infected," Fargo says. "I will push to make sure this doesnít get delayed." Hopefully Senate president Travaglini, who supports syringe legalization, will do his part as well.

One more thing: considering Romneyís steady shift rightward, a gubernatorial veto here is a good bet. So legalization supporters have plenty to do to lay the groundwork for an override, especially in the Senate.

Thereís broad support for aggressive anti-gang legislation. Last fall, the Senate unanimously passed a bill aimed, in part, at ending retribution against those who testify in violent-crime cases. The bill would allow judges to restrict defendantsí access to grand-jury testimony, which defendants can use to identify and silence hostile witnesses. It would also lower the bar on perjury charges, increase gun-crime penalties, and create a statewide witness-protection program.

Given the recent uptick in violent crime, itís no surprise that Democratic attorney general Tom Reilly and Republican lieutenant governor Kerry Healey ó possible rivals in this fallís gubernatorial election ó both support the legislation. But last week, the Boston Globe reported that criminal-defense attorneys had been aggressively lobbying the House to weaken key aspects of the bill, most notably the restriction of access to grand-jury testimony.

As it turned out, however, the Houseís newly unveiled anti-gang bill largely replicates that of the Senate. Written by Speaker DiMasi, it would assuage defense attorneys and civil libertarians by allowing defense attorneys whose clients were denied access to grand-jury testimony to challenge that denial at a hearing. But the core idea of the Senate bill ó that some defendants shouldnít be trusted with the testimony against them ó remains in place. The House took up DiMasiís bill this week.

All of this isnít to say that the House and Senate have no major disagreements. The biggest comes in the area of health insurance, where the aforementioned debate over an employer mandate has yet to be resolved. How this battle ó and the bigger health-insurance war ó will play out is anybodyís guess. Even if things get acrimonious, though, the core of shared values that unites todayís Massachusetts House and Senate means that we can expect plenty of good, progressive lawmaking between now and the end of the legislative calendar.

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.


Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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