The Salem News
Monday, November 24, 2003
If you see a state legislator this week, be sure to wish him or her not only a Happy Thanksgiving, but happy holidays and a very Happy New Year as well. The legislative session has ended for this year.
You might as well throw in your best wishes for Valentine's and Presidents Day. There won't be much happening on Beacon Hill until March of 2004.
This might be something to celebrate, except that it doesn't necessarily mean that your "life and liberty" are safe because the legislature isn't in session, as the saying goes. Politicians still do things to you, they just cram them into a few hours during budget debates and at the end of each legislative or fiscal year.
This cramming ensures maximum leadership control and minimal media and public attention paid to each crammed-in issue. It also explains the number of times you hear a legislator say he didn't know what was in the bill for which he just voted.
Saved for the final week this year were a supplemental budget to spend part of last year's budget surplus; a property tax classification issue; unemployment insurance reform which, if left unaddressed, could hurt the state economy; an economic stimulus package (to help counter the negative economic effects of state overspending, classification, and the lack of unemployment insurance reform); the safe haven for abandoned babies bill; a statewide smoking ban; and creation of a new DNA database.
The latter was just signed into law by the governor, but one wonders how well the state police will keep track of the additional DNA for thousands of nonviolent offenders. The state's medical examiner misplaced evidence from the Bulger burial sites for years, and has been known to misplace organs from autopsies. Gov. Mitt Romney's secretary of Public Safety has pledged to get that office organized, and I'm sure he eventually will. Edward Flynn, who cleaned up Chelsea when he was its police chief, is definitely the best man for the job.
But we also read news reports that the state has a giant backlog for putting sex offenders on the state database, forensic crime labs are overwhelmed and the courts are backed up. The most recent outrage is the new fee on court backlogs. Yes, incredibly, civil plaintiffs are being billed an "anniversary fee" to keep their cases alive when the court system doesn't get around to it in a year or more.
Yet with all that is not getting done, groups are pushing a primary enforcement seat-belt law, which will further distract the public safety system from dealing with real criminals. Gov. Romney is supporting this. Maybe he's unaware the public was promised in 1994, when they voted for a seat-belt law, that there would never be primary enforcement, but you'd think he'd rather see the police focused on Homeland Security.
Unfortunately, for those who want to defend themselves from real criminals while the cops are busy chasing smokers and unbuckled drivers, there is also a backlog in the paperwork necessary to renew a gun license. So some usually law-abiding gun owners find themselves in violation of the law that requires frequent renewal at a rate that cannot be accommodated by the state firearms control office. You may recall that many legislators admitted they hadn't read this proposed law when they had to pass an amendment allowing veterans to carry guns in a parade.
By the way, I have it on good authority that the courts are not overworked, they are badly mismanaged, and the Boston Municipal Court in particular is filled with legislative patronage hacks. Gov. Romney has a plan for court reform that has been ignored by the legislative patronage patrons who are now heading home for the November-February holidays.
This break, however, they will be partly occupied with constituents buttonholing their representatives on both sides of the gay marriage issue, which the Supreme Judicial Court finally ruled on this week. Procrastination must be a government epidemic; since the ruling came down during the busy last days of the legislative session, it will ensure that the marriage issue will distract everyone from the other last-minute activities on Beacon Hill.
Anyhow, the high court ordered the Legislature to find a way to allow gay marriage in the next 180 days. Deadline: one hundred eighty days. So we can expect a debate on both a statute to allow gay marriage, and the pending constitutional amendment to forbid it, sometime in May, during the usual state budget debates.
Then, if you don't like the final product, your representative can tell you that in the midst of all the cramming, he didn't know what he was voting on, again.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.