“It was long overdue. It hadn’t been done since the ’70s. The bill was out there for some time. When it was released from committee it ran into opposition from municipalities and the Massachusetts Municipal Association,” Cariddi said. “So more amendments were made to the first part of the legislation to bring it forward again in a form that was more acceptable to municipalities so that it does not pose an unfunded mandate.”
The House also passed a number of bills for veterans, most notably a “stolen valor act” that makes it a crime to impersonate having military status for financial gain.
“It is just a despicable act that you would lie about being a veteran and make money on it,” Mark said. “It is something that hadn’t been on the books.”
The state also strengthened the penalties for stealing veterans’ grave makers and passed a bill to allow purple heart recipients to use state parks for free.
“It seems like every year they find some other little thing that we don’t cover for veterans bills. Massachusetts is on the top for veterans bills but this year they found that it wasn’t a penalty for someone to impersonate a veteran to receive benefits,” Cariddi said.
Grave markers have been a growing issue with many being stolen and sold for the metal. Mark said the House also passed a bill to help recyclers ensure the metal they are buying isn’t stolen.
“There wasn’t a good system in place. Say a spool of copper wire came in, how could they verify that it wasn’t stolen from somewhere? So this new legislation will allow for a 48-hour period where agencies and metal dealers can check and find out the origin of the metal and see if there are any reported thefts in the area,” Mark said.
He said he toured a Greenfield recycling company whose operators said stolen items hurt their business. They often have to spend time and money tracking down and giving back items they’d bought.
Farley-Bouvier is co-chairing a subcommittee focused specifically at looking into the Department of Families and Children. The DCF has come under fire multiple times in recent years including high-profile cases like Baby Doe and Jeremiah Oliver. Farley-Bouvier is hoping her subcommittee can dig into those issues and in the next session find ways to improve the department.
“When the Jeremiah Oliver case broke, the sense was that every few years something happens and we seem to react to that. The goal of this committee is that we wouldn’t have people starting from square one trying to react. We would have a small group of legislators really dig into those things because in a couple of years another bad thing is going to happen. What can we do to try to stop it?” Farley-Bouvier said.
“We haven’t been having issues every couple of years. We’ve been having issues every couple of months. We had the Bella Bond case, with that little girl whose body was found. Every couple of months it just keeps happening. So what is going on? We are learning things like that we have a severe lack of foster families and we are learning from foster families that they don’t feel supported.”
She is finding social workers also do not feel supported when they confront families and that there is an “alarmingly high” turnover rate among workers in the department.
“Our goal over the next six to eight weeks is to start talking to families and talking to foster families, to social workers, and really try to get into the details of that department. There have been so many concerns there,” Farley-Bouvier said.
Meanwhile, Cariddi is the vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which will be looking into the fantasy sports issues. There has been debate nationally over companies like DraftKings and FanDuel, which have launched fantasy sports betting and triggering questions over the legality of the operations.
“In whatever we do, it should be ensured that they operate like the Lottery or a gaming establishment in that if your take is over $600, the Department of Revenue gets the first swipe at it to make sure you don’t owe any taxes, child support, or anything of that nature. And then the net proceeds after paying state taxes come back,” Cariddi said.
The North Adams Democrat said the Gaming Commission is expected the release a report on the issue soon. Also regarding gambling, the committee found itself wrapped into a controversial issue with betting machines — like video poker — in establishments like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Apparently, there has been some aggressive enforcement and the law is kind of shady on this on the part of the treasurer to remove those gaming devices,” Cariddi said. “In a lot of cases, those gaming machines help the club run.”
The committee is looking to allow the clubs to have 10 machines.
“These were all people from the eastern part of the state and my comment on that is perhaps they are only enforcing in the areas where casinos are being proposed and they want the casinos not to have competition. It could be lobbying by casinos to make sure there is not much competition out there,” Cariddi said. “But what brought the controversy out is a guy who has a restaurant came and said, ‘if they can have it, why can’t I have it?’ He was pretty adamant about that.”
Cariddi expects those issues to become a focus in the next year.
Pignatelli sits on the Higher Education Committee and is hoping to pass legislation to help solve student debt issues. Last year, Mark headed a subcommittee that released a report on student debt but that hasn’t yet translated into law.
“Paul did a good job issuing his report when he was on higher ed. Now he isn’t on higher ed so it is up to us to pick it up and run with it. That hasn’t happened yet and that is very frustrating to me because Paul did do a lot of good work and we need to build upon that and get something across the finish line,” Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli says he wants to particularly look at financial aid and to increase the amount of state aid to state schools. He said private universities, such as Harvard with its billion dollar endowment, can help students with financial aid. Pignatelli hopes to decrease the state’s financial aid to students going to private schools and instead add more aid to students attending state universities.
“We need to get a little more aggressive in trying to solve the student-debt issues,” Pignatelli said.
Mark, too, is hoping his report will translate into laws.
“The higher ed stuff is a little more complicated because I know the committee is on board. It is just what the final piece will look like and, of course, there is money involved so that will bring us right into budget season,” Mark said.
On a local level, Pignatelli has been working with his towns on shared services. All 17 towns in South County have signed onto an agreement to enhance collaboration through such things as sharing inspectors or group purchasing of supplies. Pignatelli says he is going to continue helping the towns on that effort as well as the effort among school districts to do the same.
“It was hard to get 17 towns to sign up and agree to it but we’ve proven it can be done,” Pignatelli said. “The Berkshires is such a unique geographic location and very unique demographics. We’re bordering three states, north to south, over 900 square miles. If we can get on the same page on some of these things and maintain our individuality, enhancing services, and saving taxpayer money at every level of government and schools, that’s a home run.”
He says he wants to take what those towns have done and expand it to all of Berkshire County.
While changes in leadership may have led to a slow start this session, all of the representatives say the new Republican administration is trying hard to build a strong working relationship with the Democratically controlled Legislature.
“I find there is a positive working relationship between the House and Senate leadership and the administration. I find that Democrats and Republicans are repeatedly saying they are having a good time working with the governor and his people. I have no complaints in any dealings I’ve had with any administrative agency,” Mark said.
“Where I’ve found disappointment is that the governor and or his agencies have cut multiple projects in my district that were promised.”
Those projects include state forest funding in Hawley, a $2 million public safety complex in Heath, and a $9 million child-care center for Greenfield Community College. That’s been frustrating, he said.
Pignatelli says the various state agencies have all come to his office and are willing to meet and discuss issues, boding well for a working relationship in the future.
Another dynamic still playing out is the relationship with the House and the Senate. All of the legislators said the two branches of government seem to be turning out bills that are dramatically different from each other.
“I sometimes feel there is a disconnect between the House’s version and the Senate’s version. We need to get beyond the egos and start working together for the good of the commonwealth,” Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli said DeLeo, Baker and Senate President Stan Rosenberg will ultimately find ways to work together.
“I think they are getting to know each other and figuring out how to move things forward. It seems like we’ve had a slow start but it means we just have more things teed up for the next few months,” Farley-Bouvier said.