Gov. Baker Signs Distracted Driving Bill; Legislators Delayed Over Tracking Police Profiling

Lawmakers responsible for a new law designed to take phones out of motorists’ hands defended its approach to preventing certain communities from being targeted for enforcement, arguing Monday that the profiling language is an improvement from the status quo, despite concerns from some civil rights groups. The new law prohibits the use of virtually all handheld device use behind the wheel, and it also updates how state agencies monitor police departments for disproportionate enforcement of traffic laws on women or people of color. However, the final version that was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday does not go as far as some activists had hoped. Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, described it last week as “one step forward, two steps back.”

The original Senate bill would have required police to note the age, gender and perceived ethnicity of every driver pulled over by police, regardless of the stop’s outcome. The state would have collected and analyze the information from police every year, omitting badge numbers for privacy reasons and making both the findings and the raw data available to the public.

State Campaign Finance Bill Requires Greater Mayoral, Legislative Disclosure of Contributions

The Massachusetts State Senate last week unanimously passed a campaign finance bill championed by state Sen. Diana DiZoglio. The bill increases transparency and accountability in the Commonwealth’s elections by requiring now-exempt mayoral and legislative candidates to file monthly campaign contribution reports. The bill had already been approved in the state House of Representatives. If also signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, the bill would require candidates to use the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s depository reporting system. Currently, filings for those presently exempt from the depository system occur only two or three times a year.

Baker Weighs Flavored Tobacco Ban, $1.5 Billion Ed Overhaul and Distracted Driving Bill

A ban on flavored tobacco and tax on e-cigarettes, a $1.5 billion public education funding overhaul and a new attempt to crack down on distracted driving are all on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk as lawmakers wrapped up their formal business of the year yesterday. His immediate response to all three proposals: no major objections but he wants to read the bills. Baker has supported parts of each bill or filed his own similar versions, but it remains unclear whether the governor will sign any of the legislation sent to him, return something with a proposed amendment or veto a proposal. In separate public comments Thursday, Baker declined to outline his plans explicitly. The House and Senate reached a deal after 12 a.m., Thursday on a bill that would prohibit sales of all flavored tobacco and impose a 75 percent excise tax on vaping products.

Mass. House and Senate Reach Compromise on Education Reform Bill

House and Senate lawmakers are poised to send Gov. Charlie Baker a sweeping rewrite of the state’s school funding formula that aims to close persistent achievement gaps and commits the state to spending about $1.5 billion more on K-12 education over seven years. The six representatives and senators who had been negotiating the bill filed their compromise legislation yesterday morning, less than three weeks after officially starting their talks. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka said they both expect to bring it up for a vote today. The bill provides new money to school districts to cover expenses associated with employee health care, special education, English language learners and students from low-income families. Those four areas were identified as major cost drivers in a 2015 state report that found the current funding formula’s foundation budget underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion a year.

Vargas Cosponsored ‘Breakfast After the Bell’ Bill Before House Wednesday

A measure co-sponsored by state Rep. Andy X. Vargas, is scheduled to be taken up by the House tomorrow, and if passed, it would require some schools to provide breakfast to all students after the school day has begun. The State House News Service reports the so-called “Breakfast After the Bell” bill was added Monday to the House’s schedule for tomorrow’s formal session, the last of 2019, according to Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office. Under the bill, all public K-12 schools at which at least 60 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals would be required to offer breakfast to all students after the instructional day begins. The Rise and Shine Coalition, led by The Greater Boston Food Bank, said the legislation “would require more than 600 high-poverty public schools to offer breakfast after the start of the school day, reducing hunger during morning classes.”
The group said that “while most students in these schools eat lunch, unfortunately, less than half regularly eat breakfast.”

House Approves Ban on Flavored Tobacco, Vaping Products; Vargas Rev. Sets Aside 30% for Prevention

The Massachusetts House voted Wednesday to ban the sale of flavored vaping and tobacco products—including mint and menthol cigarettes—and to impose an excise tax on e-cigarettes. Rep. Danielle Gregoire, a main proponent of flavor ban legislation, said the vote marked “a chance to put an unprecedented nail in the coffin of Big Tobacco.” The bill passed on a vote of 126-31. Under a Rep. Andy Vargas amendment, the House adopted, 30 percent of the vape tax revenue — which lawmakers previously estimated at $10 million to $15 million per year — would be directed toward a trust fund that communities use for substance abuse prevention. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said the bill would make Massachusetts the first state to restrict the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. House Speaker Robert DeLeo described Wednesday’s vote as “a nation-leading step...to modernize our laws that regulate tobacco.”

The action in the House came almost 16 months after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law raising the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21 in an effort to curb youth smoking.

State Reports Third Vaping-Related Death

A Worcester County man in his 50s was the third Massachusetts resident to die of a vaping-associated lung injury, the Department of Public Health announced Wednesday morning. The man, whom public health officials did not identify, had reportedly vaped both nicotine and THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. DPH had previously reported the vaping-related deaths of a woman in her 40s from Middlesex County and a woman in her 60s from Hampshire County, both of whom reportedly vaped nicotine. “This disease is serious and potentially fatal and we are continuing to investigate the cause,” DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel said in a statement. The state has not said when any of the three deaths occurred.

Report: Grand Jury Exploring Municipal Pot Agreements

A federal grand jury is looking into the mandatory agreements and payments between host communities and marijuana businesses, according to a report in the Boston Globe, delving into an issue that state regulators and legislators have also been wrestling with. The Boston Globe reported Monday night that at least six communities—Great Barrington, Eastham, Leicester, Newton, Northampton and Uxbridge—have received subpoenas from U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office seeking details on the communities’ host community agreements with marijuana businesses. State law requires applicants for marijuana business licenses to enter into a host community agreement before the Cannabis Control Commission will consider an application. The law stipulates that those agreements cannot run for more than five years and that the community impact fee paid to the municipality by the licensee cannot exceed three percent of the establishment’s gross sales. But the CCC has wrestled with the policy for more than a year now as entrepreneurs, lawyers and lobbyists have shared stories about cities or towns demanding a greater percentage of gross sales or other asks that would not appear to comply with the language of the law.