Slow ride

The Massachusetts legislature’s unfinished business
April 26, 2006 5:42:24 PM

Health care reform? Anti-gang legislature? Pharmacy access? Economic stimulus? The state house has unfinished businessWhen the members of the Massachusetts Legislature run for re-election this fall, they’ll brag about the landmark health-care-reform legislation they passed earlier this month. What they won’t mention — if they’re smart — is all the other important business they neglected while health care dominated Beacon Hill.

Take the economy. Just last week, Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston used some bleak economic news — that the state’s unemployment rate had outpaced the national average for the second month in a row — to bash Republican governor Mitt Romney and lieutenant governor Kerry Healey. “With Mitt Romney’s focus trained on the White House and Kerry Healey [who is running for governor] busy attempting to distance herself from the other half of the Romney-Healey administration,” Johnston complained, “it is not surprising that the business of creating jobs has gone undone.”

Good stuff, if you’re a Democrat craving election-year red meat. But here’s the problem: Romney filed his own economic-stimulus bill on March 3, 2005 — 13 and a half months ago. The House and Senate, where Democrats have veto-proof majorities, didn’t pass their own stimulus bills until October and November of 2005, respectively. And in nearly six months’ time, the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies — the body charged with crafting a compromise version of the bills — still hasn’t managed to get the job done. (The new funding mechanism for arts and culture proposed by both chambers is a terrific idea — see “A Bold Proposal,” News and Features, August 5, 2005 — but until it’s actually implemented, it won’t do much good.)

One State House observer thinks the delay is borderline absurd. “There has to be a question raised about how timely the bill is going to be when it finally gets out,” this source says. “Either it’s important and it should get done, or it’s not that important and it shouldn’t get done. But the idea — ‘Let’s take emergency measures to jump-start the economy, but take two years doing it’ — is just kind of farcical.”

The hidden injuries of delay
That’s not the only troubling example of State House torpor. Remember that proposal to legalize syringe purchases and possession, with an eye toward reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C? The House passed its version of the pharmacy-access bill in November of last year. The Senate — whose leader, Senate president Robert Travaglini, is considered a legalization sympathizer — was expected to follow suit in December. It didn’t.

According to the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, this delay has taken a substantial human toll. AIDS Action estimates that dirty needles account for nearly 400 new cases of HIV and 6000 cases of Hepatitis C in the state each year. This yields a daily infection rate of about one and 16.5, respectively, which means that, since the House sent the matter to the Senate, about 160 HIV infections and more than 2600 Hep C infections have occurred that could have been prevented by clean needles.

Denise McWilliams, AIDS Action’s director of policy and legal affairs, resolutely offers a glass-half-full take on the situation. “Although I’m disappointed with the amount of time that’s gone by since the House voted on it — in particular, looking at the cost in terms of human lives and human health — I do expect there to be a vote in the next six to seven weeks,” she told the Phoenix. “And I do expect it to be a vote in favor of the bill.”

Maybe so. But a continued wait will lead to more missed opportunities to prevent infection. There’s also a risk that the pharmacy-access bill will get lost in the shuffle as the legislature scrambles to wrap things up by July 30, when its current biennial session ends. After all, there’s no shortage of other business to attend to. In addition to the long-awaited economic-stimulus package, a supplemental state budget and welfare reform, both launched in 2005, are still on the table with a host of other bills, and the next round of budget deliberations have already started in earnest. Plus, Travaglini just unveiled an expansive new family-leave proposal that’s certain to engender lively debate.

What’s more, it’s an election year, and legalizing syringes is politically risky. The Senate may be holding off for political reasons: signatures from would-be legislative candidates are due at the beginning of May, and Democratic senators running for re-election will be more likely to support the measure if they know they’re not facing a strong Republican challenger. The flip side, of course, is that as Election Day draws closer, it will be harder for incumbents with challengers to take a controversial stand.

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While you make a valid point regarding the yet unresolved economic stimulus bill and supplemental budget from last fall, I believe you have missed many other significant pieces of legislation that have been passed so far in this TWO YEAR legislative session.... Both houses have passed a groundbreaking Stem Cell Research, authorized Emergency Contraception, passed a Drunk Driving Bill, reauthorized an Affordable Housing Bond and a produced a Veterans Welcome Home Bill....and this year the House passed a comprehensive Mercury Bill and a Primary Seat Belt Bill that is awaiting Senate action and the House debated two controversial bills that would allow the Death Penalty and In-State Tuition (both failed, thankfully) And where is three months to go.........I think it is a little unfair to say that this was an unproductive session. These accomplishments along with the groundbreaking Health Care Reform Law is quite impressive!

POSTED BY CapitalD AT 04/30/06 10:30 PM

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