Senate renames spinal cord injury fund after late Sen. Kennedy

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 24, 2015….After voting to rename a fund used to help finance research on spinal cord injuries after the late Sen. Thomas Kennedy, the Senate on Thursday passed a bill aimed at boosting the balance of the state’s spinal cord injury trust fund.

Since 2006, the amount of money diverted to the trust fund from fines paid by drivers to reinstate their licenses after suspension has dropped off precipitously from about $119,000 in fiscal 2006 to around $23,600 in fiscal 2015.

Part of the reason for the decline, according to senators, was that the state’s license suspension laws and the spinal cord trust fund triggers did not align. Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said the changes could result in an additional $100,000 annually for research.

The Senate voted 34-4 to pass the bill (S 1972) filed by Sen. Marc Pacheco that would retain the current $50 fee to reinstate a driver’s license after that license has been suspended, but assess the fee after three speeding convictions, three surchargeable events within a two-year period or as the result of receiving seven surchargeable events.

The change, according to Pacheco, ensures that the fee structure matches up with a 2010 safe driving law that shortened the leash on problem drivers by allowing for license suspensions after three offenses in two years rather than five offenses in three years.

Sen. William Brownsberger, who voted against the bill, noted that the discrepancy between the two laws meant drivers were having their licenses suspended before hitting the triggers that would have required them to pay a fine into the spinal cord trust fund.

The Senate voted 29-9 in favor of a Pacheco amendment that would tier the fines for subsequent offenses, increasing the penalty by $50 to reinstate a license after each suspension. It also passed another Pacheco amendment that the Taunton Democrat said would ensure that 100 percent of certain driving-related surcharges are deposited into the fund.

“I for one do not think it is too much to ask that they be required when they get their license back to contribute $50 to the fund, and if they should have the audacity to have their licenses revoked a second time I do not think it’s unreasonable to ask them to contribute $100 to the fund, and if they did it a third time, quite frankly, I wonder if we should be allowing them to drive at all, but in this case we charge them $150,” Pacheco said.

On a day when the Senate also passed a measure that would eliminate a $500 reinstatement fee for offenders who lost their license because of a drug offense that had nothing to do with driving a motor vehicle, Brownsberger raised a concern that any good from the first bill was being negated by the spinal cord bill.

“The lord giveth and the lord taketh away,” he said.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz also said she voted with “heavy heart” against the bill, despite supporting the trust fund’s goals. The Jamaica Plain Democrat said she lacked the information she needed about who would be impacted by the new penalty structure, and raised her own concern that it could disproportionately fall on minority drivers who she said are more likely to be pulled over.

During remarks Thursday morning, Pacheco raised the issue of naming the fund after Kennedy, who was paralyzed as a young man after suffering a fall while washing windows. He passed away in June at 63. Pacheco discussed the use of a wheelchair by the late senator and his regular presence at the State House for hearings and sessions.

Pacheco said his colleagues believed naming the fund for Kennedy would be a “fitting tribute.”

“Sen. Kennedy was a man who lived with honesty and integrity,” Pacheco said in a statement.  “He was a tireless advocate for the people of our Commonwealth and a fine public servant.  This fund is a fitting tribute to a man who overcame adversity to become a champion for his constituents.”

The bill now moves to the House.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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