Weekly Roundup — Quack, Quack

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 2, 2015…..Hours remained before the ball dropped on 2014, and Rep. John Scibak found himself sitting in the Senate gallery watching to see if that branch would pass his redrafted wine shipment bill.

The South Hadley Democrat was looking forward to going home and toasting the New Year with a flute of hard cider, but the drink would not taste nearly as sweet if Scibak did not succeed in getting to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk a piece of legislation intended to correct a mistake that the Legislature made when drafting the new out-of-state wine shipping law set to take effect on Jan. 1.

Such was the state of affairs on Beacon Hill during a week that featured New Year’s celebrations, implementation of old laws and final legislative opportunities. Lawmakers of the 188th General Court took advantage of the remaining days of the two-year session to rush through bills with the hope of quietly making some more new laws.

Scibak’s bill, which would allow small farmer wineries and hard cider makers to continue to sell their product directly to retail stores and restaurants without going through third-party distributors, did eventually make it to Patrick.

So did dozens of other bills processed during lightly attended lame-duck gatherings. Senate President Therese Murray recently suggested the remaining days of the session would be filled by consideration of “a lot of local stuff,” but local, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder.

With a handful of Republican House and Senate members on hand to make sure shenanigans were kept to a minimum, i.e. constitutional pay raises, the branches were busy Monday and Wednesday processing more than the run-of-the-mill sick leave bank, bridge designation and alcohol licensing bills.

Among the bills on the move, a health insurance mandate for student access to education psychologists advanced out of House Ways and Means, while the final touches were put on a bill now being reviewed by Patrick banning extended segregation of prisoners with serious mental illness.

Before the lights truly went dark on Suffolk Downs, Patrick received a bill for his approval extending the former horse track’s simulcasting rights through March, giving the track owners three additional months to figure out what comes next after losing out on a casino license.

Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, who sponsored the original bill that would have let Suffolk Downs takes bets on out-of-state races through July 2016 without any live racing of its own, painted the move as a job saver, linking simulcasting to 100 Eastie jobs.

Stop Predatory Gambling and the leaders of Repeal the Casino Deal were quick to jump on an amendment slipped into a banking reform bill on Christmas Eve that would have revised the state’s policy on ATMs at casinos.

Sen. Stephen Brewer, who will retire from the Legislature next week, attempted to use the banking bill as a vehicle to clarify state regulations that currently ban cash machines from the “premises” of gambling facilities. The amendment would have restricted ATMs to areas off the gaming floor.

While Brewer and backers say the change was necessary to create a level playing field between state and federal banks and address confusion about the Legislature’s intent for ATMs in the 2011 casino gaming law, the swift outrage from anti-gambling groups worried about giving problem gamblers access to quick cash caused the House and Senate to back down on New Year’s Eve.

With Attorney General-elect Maura Healey joining the chorus for more deliberation, the banking bill was sent to Patrick without any changes to casino ATM rules.

The New Year’s celebrations also meant more than just a chance to watch the fireworks over the harbor, reflect on the past 12 months and make resolutions for the next year.

The turning of the calendar also meant the first of three annual raises for minimum wage workers as base pay in Massachusetts climbed $1 to at least $9 an hour. The state income tax officially dropped on Thursday to 5.15 percent, and new election laws increasing the maximum contribution limits from $500 a year to $1,000 annually took effect.

Following the Christmas break and with big weeks on tap starting Monday, Patrick and Governor-elect Charlie Baker faded a bit from the spotlight as the governor’s staff readied for his exit and the Baker transition team prepped for next week’s inaugural.

The Governor’s Council, during their last meeting of the Patrick era, okayed the final two pardons recommended by the governor, while Patrick prepared to pull the cloth off his official portrait to hang in the governor’s office when he leaves.

The portrait, painted by artist Simmie Knox, who did Bill and Hillary Clinton’s official portraits for the White House, will be unveiled Sunday at the State House during at an open house reception for the public hosted by Patrick.

To close out the week, Pilgrim Nuclear Plant owners Entergy on Friday afternoon announced that for the first time, they plan to store spent fuel from the Plymouth facility in on-site dry casks. An Entergy official said the company has experience with such storage techniques at plants in Vermont and New York and acknowledged the move stems from the lack of agreement nationally on a depository for spent nuclear plant fuel. Pilgrim has a license limit of 3,850 assemblies in its spent fuel pool and there are currently 3,222 assemblies in the pool.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The highs and lows of lame-duck legislating.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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