July 30, 2008

Environmental Bill Gives Boost to Greater Lowell Projects

By Matt Murphy, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Jul. 30--BOSTON -- Money is flowing in both directions on Beacon Hill in a final flurry of legislative activity.

The Senate yesterday finalized an environmental bond bill funneling more than $10 million to Greater Lowell for improvements to parks and other local recreational and environmental projects. Meanwhile, the House approved a supplemental budget backing Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to ask hospitals, businesses and insurers to contribute millions more to pay for health-care reform.

The $1.6 billion environmental borrowing plan includes $2.5 million for the Bellegarde Boathouse on the Merrimack River in Lowell and $6 million for the East Boston Camps in Westford.

Other local projects that would benefit include:

--Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust Concord Greenway Project, getting $700,000.

--Nashua River Rail Trail, getting $100,000.

--Squanacook River Dam in Groton, getting $390,000.

--Flint Pond Dam in Tyngsboro, getting $500,000.

Any differences between the House and Senate versions of the environmental bond bill will have to be worked out in the next two days before the end of the legislative session.

While the Senate debated spending on the projects, the House was busy considering a supplemental budget filed by the governor that would help cover the exploding costs of health-care reform due to higher-than-expected enrollment in the state's subsidized CommonwealthCare program.

Patrick had requested one-time surcharges

and changes to the law that would have generated an additional $130 million for health care next year.

The House compromise promises $89 million drawn from a one-time $20 million assessment on hospitals, a $33 million charge to insurers, and the redirection of $35 million from a surplus fund used to insure the unemployed.

Patrick has referred to his plan to ask the businesses and health-care community shoulder more of the health care costs as "shared responsibility," but business leaders have assailed the plan as an attack on employers at a time of financial instability.

"The proposals that remain ... place a disproportionate burden on employers without consideration of the broader context that is impacting the state's economy," the Associated Industries of Massachusetts said in a statement.

In the one significant change it made to the governor's health-care plan, the House rejected Patrick's request to collect as much as $33 million in new penalties from business owners.

Current law imposes a $295 per-employee penalty on businesses that don't either pay 33 percent of their employees' health-care premiums within 90 days of hire, or enroll 25 percent of their employees. Patrick had asked the Legislature to change the law to require businesses to meet both standards.

The House also denied a request from Patrick for expanded authority to make so-called "emergency 9c" cuts in case of a drastic downturn in the economy before the end of the year, and turned upside down his proposal to increase gun-licensing fees.

Instead of increasing the license fees for Massachusetts residents to carry a firearm from $100 to $200 for a six-year license, the House voted to reduce the fee to $40.

"The Second Amendment is a recently affirmed right by the Supreme Court and I'm concerned that this is the only constitutional right we charge a fee for residents to enjoy," said Rep. Denis Guyer, D-Dalton.

Guyer, a gun owner, had drafted an amendment with 60 co-sponsors to strike the governor's fee increases from the bill if leadership didn't.

He had not, however, expected to win a fee reduction, which passed 94-57.

The Senate yesterday also approved a bill that would allow same-day voter registration at at least one precinct in every city and town in the next election, and all precincts by 2010.

Clerks opposed the bill, which they said would be difficult and costly to implement, as much as $4 million to $5 million by some estimates. Senate Republicans also said the measure, now in effect in many states including New Hampshire, would open the system to fraud.

State Sen. Steve Panagiotakos said lawmakers were acting in the voters' best interest, opening the democratic process to as many people as possible.


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