Beacon Hill Roll Call: Feb. 19 to Feb. 23, 2024

JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

Students learn American Sign Language during a class at the Sunderland Public Library last year. The Education Committee gave a favorable report to and recommended passage of a measure that would require that American Sign Language be taught in all public elementary and secondary schools.

Students learn American Sign Language during a class at the Sunderland Public Library last year. The Education Committee gave a favorable report to and recommended passage of a measure that would require that American Sign Language be taught in all public elementary and secondary schools. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By BOB KATZEN

Published: 03-01-2024 10:46 AM

There were no roll calls in the House or Senate last week.

Beacon Hill Roll Call’s research shows that so far there are at least 11 bills that have been approved unanimously by the Senate in 2023 but are languishing in the House Ways and Means Committee as of Feb. 23. With no opposition in the Senate, observers question why the bills have not yet been considered and approved by the House.

Under House rules, any individual representative can move to discharge any and all of these bills from the Ways and Means Committee. There is a seven-day waiting period prior to the House considering the motion to discharge. The discharge motion must receive a majority vote of the members present. If the measure is discharged from the committee, the committee has four days within which to report out the measure for placement on the House’s agenda for action.

A bill may also be discharged from the Ways and Means Committee by any representative by filing a petition signed by a majority of the House. The bill would then be discharged seven days later and go onto the House agenda for the next session.

A state representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Beacon Hill Roll Call that some bills are sometimes held up in committee because someone in a high position of power either inside or outside the State House is opposed to it. “Rank and file members have little control over the bill if a powerful person wants the measure buried,” said the legislator.

An ex-state representative who wished to remain anonymous said, “Although under House rules, every representative has the power to attempt to discharge a bill, hardly any attempt is made to do this out of fear of alienating the powerful speaker, his leadership team and committee chairs.”

Beacon Hill Roll Call’s archives show that motions to discharge a bill from a committee and bring it to the full House for debate and a vote were a common practice back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Beacon Hill Roll Call contacted the House speaker’s office and asked why the bills are still in committee. We received this email response:

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“Each of those bills are currently being reviewed by the House, with a continued focus on fiscal responsibility,” said Max Ratner, a spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy. He also cited three important bills that were approved by the House in November 2023, December 2023 and January 2024 and are in the Senate Ways and Means Committee awaiting action.

Here are five of the important bills that were approved unanimously by the Senate and are currently in the House Ways and Means Committee:

Gender X (S 2429)

On July 27, 2023, the Senate, 39-0, approved and sent to the House a bill that would allow residents to choose the gender-neutral designation “X” in lieu of “male” or “female” on their birth certificates and marriage certificates.

Another provision codifies into law a current practice that allows individuals to select “X” as their gender designation on their driver’s license, learner’s permit, identification card and liquor purchase identification card.

In addition, current state law requires medical documentation to change a gender designation on a birth certificate. The bill does away with that requirement.

Similar proposals were approved by the Senate during the 2018, 2020 and 2022 sessions but died from inaction in the House.

“People know what gender they are,” said sponsor Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “This bill affirms the ability of people to choose a non-binary gender option on state documents and forms, which would align the commonwealth with many other states that have adopted this designation. … Together, with our partners in the House, we will continue to move our commonwealth to embrace this basic human right.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Make obtaining ID cards easier for people who are homeless (S 2251)

On July 27, 2023, the Senate, 38-0, approved and sent to the House legislation that would make it easier for homeless youth and adults to secure free state ID cards.

Supporters said a person experiencing homelessness faces prohibitive fees and documentation requirements when trying to obtain an ID card. They noted this legislation removes those barriers by eliminating fees and only requiring that applicants present documentation showing that they are receiving services provided by the state, a homeless service provider or another service provider. They argued that ID cards are necessary for applying for jobs, enrolling in school, interacting with law enforcement, accessing government buildings, opening financial accounts and many other basic services that many take for granted.

“When we listen to our homeless youth about the challenges they face, there is a common denominator and that is access to identification,” said Sen. Robyn Kennedy, D-Worcester, the Senate sponsor of the bill. “Having proper identification is the foundation to accessing food, shelter and employment opportunities, while also breaking the cycle of poverty.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Menstrual products (S 2491)

On Oct. 26, 2023, the Senate, 38-0, approved and sent to the House a bill that would require all prisons, homeless shelters and K-12 schools to maintain free menstrual products, including sanitary napkins, tampons and underwear liners, in private and public restrooms and to make them available in a “convenient manner that does not stigmatize any persons seeking the products.”

Supporters said that according to the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition, one in every seven children in the state struggles to pay for menstrual products. They argued that research shows that the inability to access menstrual products affects students’ class attendance.

They also noted that women facing homelessness or who are incarcerated face high barriers to access, with Massachusetts shelters reporting that menstrual products are among the least donated items. They argued that restricted access in shelters and correctional facilities means that products can be used as bargaining chips and tools of control for people in vulnerable circumstances.

“I learned about this issue from young people in Medford High School, Somerville High School and Cambridge Rindge and Latin who took leadership at the local level to make menstrual hygiene products available in their own communities,” said sponsor Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville. “This is a true grassroots movement starting with girls talking about their experiences of missing valuable class time or feeling embarrassed to access products during the school day. These conversations have already started to change the culture and have motivated us to expand this across the state.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

HIV prevention drugs (S 2480)

On Oct. 26, 2023 the Senate, 38-0, approved and sent to the House a bill that would allow pharmacists to prescribe, dispense and administer a short-term supply (60 days once in a two-year period) of HIV prevention drugs, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), to a patient without a prescription.

The bill requires pharmacists to provide counseling to the patient regarding the use of PrEP, to inform the patient’s primary care doctor that the pharmacist has prescribed the drug, and to connect patients without a primary care provider with a health care provider for ongoing care and to obtain a prescription for PrEP.

Under the bill, pharmacists could only prescribe PrEP to patients who have tested negative for HIV within the past seven days, do not have HIV symptoms and are not taking medications that are not safe to use with PrEP.

Supporters say PrEP is a life-saving medication that is nearly 100% effective in stopping the transmission of HIV. They note that under current law, individuals who take PrEP must make an appointment and go through their doctor, a barrier that can stand in the way for people who need the medication on short notice, cannot make an appointment or cannot access medical care.

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Pharmaceutical access, costs and transparency (S 2520)

On Nov. 15, 2023, the Senate, 39-0, approved and sent to the House a bill that would reform the pharmaceutical system by lowering the cost of drugs at the pharmacy counter and improving oversight of the pharmaceutical industry.

“The Senate has made pharmaceutical cost containment and oversight a priority for a long time, and I’m proud that we’ve had the opportunity to pass this bill in three consecutive sessions, improving it as we learn more and more about the industry,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, Senate chair of the Committee on Health Care Financing. “While we are supportive of the work of the pharmaceutical industry, we also know that far too many Massachusetts residents are struggling to access life-saving, essential medication due to outrageous and skyrocketing costs. [This legislation] will provide necessary transparency and oversight measures, so that consumers can trust that this system is putting patients and their health before profits.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Paul Mark — Yes

Also up on Beacon HillIncrease fines for violating handicapped parking rules (H 3261)

The House gave initial approval to a proposal that would allow cities and towns to increase the $300 maximum fine for parking illegally in a parking space reserved for handicapped persons. The measure would allow cities and towns to impose an additional $450 fine, making the total fine $750. The additional $450 would be placed into a specialized local account to be used for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) upgrades in the city or town where the violation occurred. The original $300 fine would still go into the community’s general fund.

“In my district and across the state, cities and towns through commissions on disabilities have plans to make their communities more accessible,” said sponsor Rep. Bruce Ayers, D-Quincy. “However, oftentimes a lack of funding prevents them from enacting their plans. This bill allows them to place some of the financial burden on the backs of those who violate the laws that exist to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and to provide for greater opportunities of access.”

Change archaic language referring to persons with disabilities (H 4396)

The House gave initial approval to a bill that would modernize written state laws to reflect the evolution of terminology relating to persons with disabilities.

Changes include replacing “handicapped persons” with “persons with disabilities,” replacing “the mentally retarded” with “persons with an intellectual disability,” replacing “retarded children” with “children with an intellectual disability” and replacing “disabled American veterans” with “American veterans with disabilities.”

Supporters said the primary objective of the bill is to identify and eliminate outdated, archaic language from state laws and replace it with more respectful, person-first language. They noted that once the archaic language was found, they contacted the relevant state agency or office to confirm that the bill would have no unforeseen consequences, such as impacting funding or access to services.

“Modernizing state statutes to reflect the evolution of terminology relating to persons with disabilities is an essential step the commonwealth can take to reflect the respect that we should have for all residents,” said sponsor Rep. Mike Finn, D-West Springfield. “Getting the bill to this point is a result of collaboration between many executive offices, stakeholders and legislative committees. My hope is that the latest version of the bill will pass legislative scrutiny and reach the finish line this session. Working on this bill in particular has been an honor because it represents my own personal beliefs about how every individual in this commonwealth deserves to be treated with dignity.”

Noah Fernandes Mitochondrial Awareness Day (H 4140)

The House gave initial approval to a bill designating the Friday of the third full week of September as Noah Fernandes Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Day, in recognition of the Team Noah Foundation that aims to alleviate financial and emotional stress by providing transportation and home improvements for families with children who are affected by mitochondrial disease and other developmental disabilities.

“Noah Fernandes was the son of a friend, Victor Fernandes, who is a business leader in New Bedford and very involved in our community,” said sponsor Rep. Tony Cabral, D-New Bedford. “Noah was diagnosed with Melas, one of the most severe forms of mitochondrial disease, when he was 5 years old. For the next 10 years, Noah’s muscular and mental condition deteriorated as juvenile dementia overtook his body and left him unable to move or speak until he passed away at age 15.”

Cabral continued, “Within their grief, Victor and Noah’s mom, Christine Fernandes, launched the Team Noah Foundation, a nonprofit [that] helps the families of severely disabled children with conversion projects to make their homes more handicap-accessible and to help provide specialized vans, bicycles and other transportation needs. ... Given the great work that the Team Noah Foundation does in the memory of Noah Fernandes, it seemed only fitting to acknowledge this and bring awareness of this disease to the state level.”

Marijuana and first responders (S 48)

The Committee on Cannabis Policy has given a favorable report and recommended passage of a measure that would require the Cannabis Control Commission and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to study and report to the Legislature on the barriers that first responders face about their legal right to use cannabis.

“As we move away from cannabis prohibition, we should ensure we do not hold on to pre-existing, bias-driven bans,” said sponsor Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. “I filed [the bill] to investigate the existing barriers to first responders’ legal right to use cannabis. … The bill would also explore the effectiveness of cannabis in treating anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD and other traumas.”

Declare racism as a public health crisis (S 1412)

The Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee gave a favorable report and recommended passage of legislation that would declare racism as a public health crisis and direct the Office of Health Equity to develop policies to dismantle systemic racism impacting health and establish programs focused on the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Free diapers (H 149)

Another proposal given a favorable report by the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee would create a pilot program to provide free diapers to low-income families at food pantries.

“Access to new, clean diapers is necessary to preserve our babies’ health,” said sponsor Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem. “No parent should have to resort to reusing soiled diapers due to an inability to pay or have to undergo further economic hardships to acquire diapers. This legislation puts the well-being of our infants and families where it should be, at the forefront.”

American Sign Language (S 2589)

The Education Committee gave a favorable report to and recommended passage of a measure that would require that American Sign Language (ASL) be taught in all public elementary and secondary schools to increase interactions between hearing persons and deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, as well as children with autism. Current law allows but does not require schools to teach ASL.

“I sponsored the legislation to promote greater equity and inclusion in our public school systems,” said Sen. Jake Oilveira, D-Ludlow. “In recent years, it has become apparent that instruction in American Sign Language provides children with autism with increased opportunities for education and development. It is visually based, unaided and provides a mode of quick communication. American Sign Language is a language our students should get the opportunity to learn in our public school system, and it supports inclusion and involvement for all students.”