Legislative Session Wrap Up – The Good, The Bad, The Maybe

The 2011-2012 Massachusetts legislative session was certainly a busy and full one, with many legislative observers noting that whether or not you agreed with the Legislature’s and Governor Patrick’s decisions, a great deal of legislation passed over the past two years.

Progressive Massachusetts is pleased that a number of progressive policies became law that will help move the state forward, and maintain Massachusetts’s reputation as a leader in innovation, expanding opportunity and assisting our fellow citizens.

Since the battle to protect gay marriage ended, advocates to expand the civil rights of the LGBT community  have focused on passing the Transgender Equal Rights Law, in order to end discrimination against transgender residents.  Through effective organizing and the persistence of progressive leaders like Representative Carl Sciortino and Senator Ben Downing, the legal discrimination against transgender people by the government was outlawed.  Although the bill was weakened to remove public accommodation protections for the transgender community, the bill is a positive step forward in expanding civil rights in Massachusetts.

Building upon the 2008 Green Communities Act, Governor Patrick and the Massachusetts Legislature updated the law, in order to require utility companies to purchase twice as much alternative energy, thus ensuring that Massachusetts continues to do its part to reduce global warming, while also lowering energy costs for consumers and, in the process, creating more green jobs.

A major concern for progressives has always been the influence of corporate power on public policy.  The negative effects of corporate power have grown even worse since the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, that allows corporations to spend unlimited money from their general treasury funds to directly influence federal, state and local elections.  Grassroots activists across the state rallied behind passing a resolution, filed by Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Cory Atkins, calling upon our congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, and make it the law of the land that the First Amendment of the Constitution is for people, and not for corporations.  Thanks to dozens of communities passing town resolutions, the support of Boston city council, and organizing by good government groups such as Common Cause, Mass Vote, and the League of Women Voters, the resolution passed the House and the Senate just before the end of the formal legislative session on July 31st, 2012.

Finally, on the health care front, we believe some progress was made in the passing of the health care cost control legislation at the end of the legislative session.  Included in the law were provisions that created a Preventative and Wellness Health Care Trust that will provide grants to communities that may have a high incidence of diabetes, child obesity, or poor nutrition, the banning on mandatory overtime for nurses in hospitals, and making it easier for families on the border of falling into poverty to keeping their health care through MassHealth.  Furthermore, in the Senate there was an important discussion during the health care legislation debate on Massachusetts taking a hard look at the implementation universal single-payer health care.  An amendment largely reflecting the singe-payer legislation filed at the beginning the session was narrowly defeated, 22-15, indicating that, a growing percentage of the public, as well as more and more legislators are getting behind making health care a right.  Progressive Massachusetts played a key role in making phone calls and communicating with Senators on the fence their support for universal single-payer health care.

Of course, not every bill that became law moved the state forward, and in some instances we believe legislation was passed that is detrimental to the best interests of the people of Massachusetts.  Furthermore, we believe there was common-sense legislation that should have passed this session, but fell short.

One example of the latter was updating the Bottle Bill.  Despite strong public support, a coalition working hard to convince legislators of the importance and value of updating the Bottle Bill, and over half of legislators supporting the bill, corporate special interests (bottlers, grocery stores, liquor stores) and a Speaker of the House who insisted that a common-sense fee was actually a tax won the day.

Progressive Mass was active in trying to defeat another bill, the habitual offender or “three strikes” criminal justice legislation.  The bill, which would end probation for individuals who had committed any three crimes on a list created by the Legislature passed the Legislature overwhelmingly, despite the objections of civil rights and civil liberties groups, communities of color, and many faith communities.  Governor Patrick wisely sent back the bill with an amendment allowing for a “release valve” that would allow a judge, in the interest of justice, to not implement the three strikes probation provision depending on the circumstances of the particular case or defendant.  Sadly, the Legislature overrode Governor Patrick’s amendment.  We appreciate the votes and efforts by some progressive legislators to oppose this legislation that will add tens of millions of dollars to the state budget while doing very little to improve public safety, and hope that next session a major sentencing reform can be passed.

Looking back at the 2011-2012 session, it is clear that a vigorous, diverse statewide progressive grassroots movement can have an impact on what happens up on Beacon Hill.  We were successful in persuading the Legislature to pass the Citizen’s United resolution, pass a comprehensive health care cost control bill with progressive provisions, and keeping. Massachusetts at the forefront in the nation for embracing alternative energy.  However, more work needs to be done to transform the efforts of those concerned with the environment into legislation, making the voices and concerns of communities of color heard in the halls of the State House, and ensuring that every single legislator is hearing from progressive, forward-thinking constituents of theirs.

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