STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 27, 2014…. It’s not exactly what critics mean when they chastise jurists for legislating from the bench, but the practical impact isn’t all that different.
As much as House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, or even Gov. Deval Patrick, justices in black robes are exerting considerable influence over the legislative agenda and politics in general on Beacon Hill.
First it was striking down sentencing juveniles to life in prison. That issue is now being legislated. Then came the legalization of “upskirting” by the Supreme Judicial Court that had lawmakers tripping over themselves to correct in 24 hours. Next up was a ruling from the state’s incoming chief justice Ralph Gants that struck down a lifetime parole program for sex offenders. That has yet to be addressed, though promises were made.
This week the Legislature had two more curveballs thrown its way from behind the bench, including one that has the potential to dramatically impact this fall’s elections and blow a hole in the state budget, never mind policymakers’ dreams for the jobs that will come with casino gambling.
The state’s highest court on Tuesday ruled that an initiative petition seeking to effectively repeal the state’s 2011 expanded gambling law could proceed to the ballot in November.
Despite the obvious smack-down to her legal arguments and the pig pile from her political opponents that followed, Attorney General Martha Coakley tried to put on a happy face and explain that despite taking the losing side in the legal battle she always expected the issue to be toss-up decided by the courts.
Now it will also be decided by the voters in what promises to be a pricey, television ad war. Just what budget writers will do with the $73 million in gaming money they had banked on for next year’s state budget could be decided within days, with Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer saying the “goal” is to finalize the budget by Sunday night.
When he wasn’t hosting World Cup celebrations on City Hall Plaza, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was writing a letter to the Gaming Commission urging the group, in light of the SJC’s ruling, to delay any decisions on a Greater Boston casino license until after the election. Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, who plans to vote against the ballot question, agreed.
If that wasn’t enough, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the state’s 7-year-old buffer zone law that set a fixed 35-foot perimeter around family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood to protect patient’s access to the facilities.
In statement after statement, the operative emotion of disappointment from elected Democrats was balanced by right-to-life groups who cheered the ruling as a victory for free speech. “I’m not happy. Not happy at all,” Murray said. “We’re going to do something.”
Just what that something will become remains to be seen. Coakley suggested one option could be a return to the “floating buffer” zone that follows a person outside an abortion clinic, but does not explicitly infringe on someone’s right to free speech on a sidewalk. While the attorney general said that law “didn’t work very well” when in place here in Massachusetts, the court’s opinion appeared to suggest that it would at least be tolerated.
If not the courts forcing lawmakers to respond, it’s been citizen petitioners, and with a fairly good success rate. Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday signed into law, with great fanfare, an incremental increase in the minimum wage to $11 and hour by January 2017. Despite lawmakers’ reluctance to link wages to inflation, petitioners felt they got enough in the deal to disband their campaign.
Before the week was over, lawmakers rushed through a surprise compromise on nurse staffing requirements in intensive care units that was sufficient to convince petition organizers to drop both their campaign for nurse staffing as well as limits on hospital profit margins and executive compensation.
Not all the action this week was reaction. The Senate approved a roughly $1 billion information technology borrowing bill, while the House passed a super PAC disclosure bill that would also double maximum individuals campaign contributions to $1,000.
Both branches came together to approve a $4.6 billion interim budget that will be sufficient to keep government operating for a month should the start of the fiscal year arrive on Tuesday without a final spending plan in place, which seems likely at this point given that the Legislature hasn’t reached a deal and Patrick plans to be in Panama with Secretary of State John Kerry attending the inauguration of President-elect Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez.
With all the frequent flier miles the governor has been racking up lately, First Lady Diane is probably going to be expecting a pretty exotic post-governorship vacation.
Meanwhile, in the category of not-going-to-happen this year, two committees essentially killed legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to be given drivers’ licenses and made driving without a seat belt a primary offense. There’s considerable support, and opposition, to both bills.
Treasurer Steven Grossman has tried to use his support for licensing undocumented immigrants as a wedge issue between himself and gubernatorial rival Coakley, but the panel of House and Senate lawmakers voted to refer the matter for further study, with three voting in favor of the bill and four against.
The Public Safety Committee on Thursday voted 9-6 against recommending a primary enforcement seat belt law.
No week is truly complete without a surprise Friday afternoon announcement, and this week’s came courtesy of the Department of Public Health, who announced that after much scrutiny it had whittled the field of medical marijuana dispensary applicants, for now, from 20 to 11.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the two dispensaries planned for Boston were nixed and former Congressman Bill Delahunt, whose Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts group had the three highest scored applications after the initial phases, saw his medical marijuana fantasies snuffed out.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Attorney General Martha Coakley found herself on the losing end of two court decisions, one at the state level and the other at the Supreme Court. While the casino ballot ruling put her back on the high heels she said she wants to bring to the Corner Office, Coakley came out swinging as the women’s champion for reproductive health access.
Copyright 2014 State House News Service