Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster Costs Surpass $1B, Continue to Mount

Third-party claims in connection with the Columbia Gas explosions in the Lawrence, Andover and North Andover last September could reach $790 million and the utility expects to spend up to $345 million in other related costs, its parent company reported in a Securities and Exchange filing on Wednesday. According to the State House News Service, third-party claims in 2018 totaled $757 million and other incident expenses last year totaled $266 million. “We also expect to incur expenses for which we cannot estimate the amounts of or the timing at this time, including expenses associated with government investigations and fines, penalties or settlements with governmental authorities in connection with the Greater Lawrence Incident,” NiSource said. The costs are still mounting and the amounts included in the annual report do not include the estimated capital cost of the pipeline replacement. According to NiSource, Columbia of Massachusetts paid $167 million for the replacement of the entire affected 45-mile pipeline system and the company estimates the replacement work will cost $220 million to $230 million in total.

Massachusetts Legislator Hopes to Move State Primary Up to June to Encourage Voter Engagement

Last year's Sept. 4 primary election was about two weeks earlier than is typical for Massachusetts, moved up so that it would not conflict with Jewish holidays. But despite the alteration, it was still the sixth-latest primary election in the United States. Needham’s Sen. Becca Rausch wants to change that. The first-term legislator filed a bill that would move the state primary up to June, and she says that the switch would help voters become better engaged and would allow the general election to be more competitive—not to mention the convenience of avoiding the scheduling pitfalls that come in September.

Vargas Co-Sponsors Bill Supporting Creation of Commission to Examine Local Journalism

A new bill filed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich and co-sponsored by Rep. Andy Vargas aims to create a government commission to study “communities underserved by local journalism." (File photograph)

At a time when acquisitions of local papers by international chains and waves of mass layoffs mean the news industry itself is often making headlines, a state lawmaker has offered up a plan she hopes will “sound the alarm.”

Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, filed a bill that would create a 17-member commission to study “communities underserved by local journalism," including “the adequacy of press coverage,” effects of social media, print and digital business models, and “public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions.”

The State House News Service reports Ehrlich's bill is co-sponsored by Haverhill state Rep. Andy Vargas. As proposed, the bill would give the commission a year to report its findings. The panel would include lawmakers, gubernatorial appointees, and representatives of journalism schools, news industry groups and the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Ehrlich said there is a “strong local media market” around her district, but some other parts of the state “could be classified as a media desert.”

Though consolidations and downsizing are national trends affecting an industry in the private sector, Ehrlich said she believes state government could still have a role to play in convening experts to address the issue.

State Police Begin Wearing Body Cameras for Six-Month Pilot Program

A portion of the force will wear body cameras as part of a new pilot program. (File photograph)

Over the next six months, about 100 Massachusetts state troopers will wear a body camera as they patrol the state and interact with residents as part of a pilot program put into place with other reforms intended to rebuild public trust in the agency. According to the State House News Service, the pilot is meant to allow the State Police to evaluate equipment from several different vendors and officials said the cameras “will provide an additional level of accountability and accuracy for Troopers during their interactions with the public, increase officer safety, and enhance the ability to accurately document the actions of criminal offenders.”

After a series of scandals tainted the State Police’s reputation, Gov. Charlie Baker and State Police Superintendent Col. Kerry Gilpin announced last April that the agency would make a number of changes -- including activating GPS trackers for marked cruisers, the elimination of the Turnpike-patrolling Troop E and early work towards a body camera program -- in hopes of restoring public confidence in the State Police. Gilpin announced Monday that the State Police had begun its body camera pilot program and said the cameras “offer the potential to bring a new level of officer safety, transparency, and accurate documentation to the tens of thousands of interactions our personnel have with the public every year.”

The union that represents most troopers, the State Police Association of Massachusetts (SPAM), signed a memorandum of understanding with State Police brass to officially support the body camera program.

Senate Adopts DiZoglio-Backed NDA Ban

State Sen. Diana DiZoglio. (Courtesy photograph from State House News Service)

The House and Senate will charge into the new session with two different policies covering the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment, with the Senate voting unanimously Thursday to ban their use altogether. The vote in the Senate took place a day after the House engaged in a spirited debate on the merits of a similar policy for that chamber and voted overwhelmingly to keep its current policy and reject a blanket ban on non-disclosure agreements. “We are not, nor will we be in the future, in the business of silencing victims or covering up misdeeds under any circumstances using public funds,” newly-elected Sen. Diana DiZoglio, of Methuen, said in a speech on the Senate floor. DiZoglio offered the amendment to the Senate rules, arguing the agreements are a tool used by the powerful to keep victims of harassment and sexual assault quiet.

MBTA Proposes Fare Hike: Find Out How Much Rates Could Rise

A possible MBTA fare increase would see ticket prices jump starting in July. (Courtesy file photograph/MBTA)

Seeking to contain its budget deficit in the face of rising expenses, the MBTA on Monday announced a proposal to raise the price of bus, subway and commuter rail rides by an average of 6.3 percent beginning July 1 in order to raise more than $32 million in new annual revenue. According to the State House News Service, the proposal, which is open for public input and must be approved by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, would see the CharlieCard price of a bus ride increase by 10 cents to $1.80, the price of a subway trip climb by 15 cents to $2.40 and the price of a monthly link pass, which allows unlimited subway and bus trips, rise $5.50 to $90 per month. MBTA officials said the proposed increases would be the first time in three years that MBTA fares have gone up and that the increases for all fare types will be less than seven percent. By law, the T can’t raise any fare by more than seven percent, nor can it raise fares more than once every two years.

Vargas Unveils Beacon Hill Legislation in Push to Lower Municipal Voting Age to 16

Haverhill Rep. Andy Vargas spoke with civic-minded teens during a Statehouse session on Jan. 24. (Courtesy photograph by Chris Lisinski/SHNS)

A dozen new lobbyists roamed the halls of the Statehouse on Thursday, carrying clipboards and fliers, but forgoing business attire in favor of skinny jeans and hoodies. Their goal was to find legislators who would co-sponsor a new bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds such as themselves to vote in municipal elections. In meeting after meeting with aides and elected officials, they ran through talking points, arguing that such a measure has already been sought in several communities and that the change would promote political engagement in the wake of the state's new civics-education bill.

Baker Pushes for Law to Apply OUI Statutes to Marijuana

There is currently no breathalyzer-type test to gauge marijuana impairment. (File photograph)

As the number of stores selling marijuana in Massachusetts grows, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced he’ll ask lawmakers to adopt the recommendations of a special commission that studied ways to deal with operating under the influence. According to the State House News Service, if the Legislature adopts the 19 recommendations from the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving, a driver suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana who refuses to take a chemical test for impairment would lose their license for at least six months. That is the same penalty faced by suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take a breathalyzer test. Since late November, nine retail marijuana stores have opened their doors and regulators say they expect four to eight new stores opening each month.