Weekly round-up: Busy signals

Beacon Hill awakens from its summer slumber

Like a colony of bees aroused by the thrown stone of autumn, Beacon Hill awakened from its summer slumber in force this week, gathering pollen from the gardens of legislative hearings.

Lawmakers caught a dusting from perennial plants, such as law enforcement seeking new prosecutorial tools, and new exotics - the taxi industry would call them invasive species - Uber and Lyft.

The Senate on Thursday dove into the weeds of foreclosure law, passing legislation that would limit the window for former homeowners seeking to challenge title after a foreclosure.

Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler suggested more might be in store for that patch of Massachusetts law, saying the Senate's action "solves a small part of a very big problem."

The casino landscape in southeastern Massachusetts also came into sharper focus Friday afternoon as the U.S. Department of the Interior approved the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's application to take land-in-trust - a decision that if it survives any potential lawsuits - will allow the tribe to build a casino in Taunton. If Rush Street Gaming, the only other group pursuing a commercial license in the region, were to open its hoped-for Brockton casino along with the tribal casino, the tribe would pay nothing on gaming revenues, while the state would get a 25 percent cut of Rush Street's gross gaming win.

With the legalistic question of what constitutes a "money bill" dominating much of the late spring, it has been an often esoteric start for the 189th General Court. And a late one. Aside from budget bills, local bills and the sales tax holiday, the Legislature hasn't delivered much to the governor's desk. More immediate and concrete concerns lie on the horizon.

Heroin addiction, whose damage is measured by its body count, is a priority for virtually all elected leaders. The governor included some items in a spending bill set for passage this fall, with a fuller bill promised, and the Senate tipped its hand last week with the filing of recommendations to screen school kids for substance abuse and ease access to non-narcotic pain management.

The solar industry, one of the more vigorous growth areas of the Bay State economy, is crying out for legislative action to incentivize still more projects by lifting the cap on how many megawatts of solar can be sold to utilities at the retail rate. Gov. Charlie Baker and the Senate have both proposed cap lifts of varying amounts, while the House has yet to weigh in.

Underscoring the urgency of addressing the state's energy mix, officials at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station told the Boston Globe that if safety upgrades prove too expensive it will shut down - a prospect that must be both worrying and tantalizing to the Cape Cod activists who have long sought its closure because of safety concerns.

This week transgender advocates rallied anew for access without discrimination to sex-segregated public facilities. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, the first openly gay man to lead the Senate, supports new protections for transgender people and House Speaker Robert DeLeo plans to hold a caucus on the issue.

With hearings sprouting up throughout the State House, lawmakers and advocates swarmed to testify on a wide variety of issues. The going-rate for a manhole cover is now just $3.50 and the scrap metal lobby wants to strengthen ties with law enforcement to cut down on thievery.

Trash haulers argued against a bill they said would limit their round-the-clock "ballet" of collections. The "orchestra" might be a bit heavy on percussion for Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem who is seeking to restrict the all-hours symphony to industrial areas. Community college faculty, specifically a Bristol Community College English professor, also asked lawmakers for more investment in the schools before offering free tuition to the students.

Bills with more momentum toward the floor include varying proposals to expand the quality and access of early childhood education and ideas for how to regulate smartphone-enabled ride hailing services Uber and Lyft. The taxi and livery industry argues those companies are pirates, four-wheeled Napsters taking fares and hiking rates while scoffing at regulation.

The honeycomb of regulation envisioned by Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, whose Financial Services Committee led a longer-than-10-hour hearing on the disruptive new technology Tuesday, might involve a state system of rules not just for the so-called transportation network companies but also the taxi industry. Taxis, whose rates are set by government, are overseen by cities not the state.

"I don't think it's appropriate to talk about the future of transportation network companies without talking about the future of cabs," Michlewitz said.

As with the need to reduce opiate addiction and fix the MBTA, there is broad consensus on the importance of providing quality preschool education, but no agreed-upon plan for how the state can do a better a job and how quickly it should ramp up its role in providing for the care and education of toddlers.

"Let's today shift our focus to the one issue that most of us actually agree on," Education Committee Senate Chairwoman Sonia Chang-Diaz said, testifying before her own committee on Wednesday.

That raises the issue of what the Education Committee has historically failed to agree on: an expansion of charter schools.

Charter school proponents, already expecting a Baker bill to expand caps and a ballot referendum in 2016, opened a third frontTuesday with a class action lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court.

"When my son was not accepted through any of the lotteries, I thought to myself, 'Here I am, back to square one.' I cried a lot. It was a long year," said one of the plaintiffs in a statement. The de-facto defendants in the case are members of the Baker administration, which supports a lift in the charter cap.

Another proposal bypassing the ordinary channels for legislation is the constitutional referendum to add a 4 percent tax on incomes over $1 million, which would go before voters in 2018 if it passes constitutional conventions this session and next. Supporters claim polling shows 71 percent of Bay Staters approve a higher tax for incomes over $1 million.

Barbara Anderson, who will have retired from Citizens for Limited Taxation three years from now, in an email cited the reported move by tech company Analogic to shift 90 manufacturing jobs to China as an example of what's in store for the state if it adds to millionaires' tax burdens.

All fodder for the Democrats gathering in Springfield Saturday.

The chance to win $1 million, plus what looks like a gajillion-dollar ad-buy, has garnered attention for Draft Kings, a Boston-based fantasy sports outfit with cash prizes. Some don't see the distinction between the web-driven "skill-based" fantasy contest and old school sports books, and Attorney General Maura Healey said she is reviewing the legality of the company.

The American Gaming Association, which represents the casino industry, says its members want in on the action but its questionable legality remains a stumbling block.

"Many of our members would like to leverage their brands and years of gaming expertise to provide this product to their customers. But the current lack of legal clarity is an obstacle. The industry agrees this is an issue that must be addressed," said AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman in a statement.

Healey was also at the State House to testify in favor of greater penalties for trafficking in fentanyl, a powerful opiate blamed in part for the addiction crisis, and to seek an update to the state's wiretap law, which would allow state law enforcement to listen-in on street gangs. The law limits state law enforcement to bugging Mafia-style, highly organized extortion and - ahem - bookmaking rackets.

Finally on Friday, law enforcement appears to have identified the identity of "Baby Doe," the child whose remains were found on Deer Island on June 25. The public did not need a name to mourn the young girl's death, though it seemed an even greater crime that she would remain anonymous. Investigators have spent the summer employing a range of tactics to learn as much as they can about her and the circumstances of her death.

"Her name was Bella," Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley told the media Friday afternoon. He said the 2-year-old was killed by 35-year-old Michael McCarthy and that Bella's mother was an accessory after the crime.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Hundreds, maybe thousands of bills, had hearings this week, but how many will be signed into law?


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