The big hot-button issues tend to draw all the attention and headlines on Beacon Hill and usually for good reason. Gun control, medical marijuana and state foster care policies are just a few critical issues currently under debate.
Still, there are plenty of other ideas being championed that could impact our quality of life and our bottom lines in less dramatic, yet still meaningful ways. This month I’d like to call your attention to three such bills. Each is what I would call a common-sense piece of legislation and all three have garnered bi-partisan support.
Direct Shipment of Wine. Massachusetts is one of just a few states that does not allow residents to purchase wine to have it shipped to their homes. That would change under proposed legislation (H. 294) currently before the Joint Consumer Protection Committee, which I am a member of.
In its current form, the bill would allow consumers to purchase a limited quantity of wine directly from out-of-state wineries, such as that of former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe who now runs a winery in the state of Washington. He visited the State House this fall to advocate in favor of the bill and recounted the time he promised Tom Brady he would send him the 12th bottle of his first vintage to match his jersey number. Due to our state laws, however, Bledsoe was forced to ship the bottle to Brady’s father in California who reportedly drank it instead!
Some valid concerns have been raised to ensure that we do not make it easier for minors to access alcohol or harder for our local package stores to do business. For those reasons provisions have been added to limit the quantity of wine that can be shipped and include strict reporting requirements. Massachusetts has some fairly archaic alcohol laws on the books and this is an opportunity to update them to be more pro-consumer.
Charitable license plates. We’ve all seen those specialty license plates on the roads, often promoting a favorite cause. Since 2003, the Massachusetts RMV has allowed non-profit groups to raise money through the voluntary sale of specialty plates, collectively bringing in nearly $75 million for these charitable groups.
While the law has been a smashing success, its demanding requirements mean that only the biggest non-profits can qualify. Applicants must post a $100,000 bond and sell at least 1,500 plates in advance at $40 per plate and 3,000 in the first two years or risk losing their bond. Every year dozens of otherwise qualified charitable organizations fall short of this threshold, shutting them out of a valuable potential revenue stream.
Many other states have much lower thresholds for specialty plates. For instance Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio impose minimums of no more than 500 plates and Missouri requires only 200. With new technology the additional cost of producing a specialty plate is lower and lower.
A bill, H. 3136, I am working on with my colleague Rep. Jeff Roy (D-Franklin) and a bi-partisan group of legislators, would lower this threshold in Massachusetts to 500 plates and allow more charitable groups to take advantage. The bill includes provisions to ensure that the RMV can still recoup any fixed costs for producing the plates. This is a far more manageable threshold and will allow smaller and mid-sized 501c(3) groups to apply.
All of the sudden it would not be out of the question for a local non-profit to qualify for a specialty plate. Imagine driving around town with your “Friends of the Pembroke Library”, or “Pembroke Education Foundation” specialty license plate, and knowing your extra fee was going to a great cause in your own backyard.
Mobile phone tax relief. A recent directive from the Mass. Department of Revenue has caused issues for consumers who purchase mobile phones with a service plan. Instead of paying state sales tax on the purchase price at the cash register, some consumers are being charged tax on the much higher manufacturers price.
In other words, if you paid $199 at the cash register for an iPhone but your phone is actually valued at $799 by Apple, you’d be forced to pay sales tax on $799. For an older model or a used cell phone that means you could actually pay more in sales tax than you would for the actual price of the phone!
Massachusetts is one of just two states to single out mobile phones for such disparate treatment. It is a practice that is unfair to consumers and also a headache for retailers, often putting franchise owned stores at a competitive disadvantage over stores owned by mobile phone service carriers.
A bill that Rep. Jay Barrows (R-Mansfield) and I are working on was recently given a favorable report and is now before the Ways & Means Committee. Our legislation (H. 3586) would level the playing field and treat a mobile phone purchase the same whether it was bundled with a calling plan or not. The price you pay at the register is the price you are taxed on.
So there you have it, three issues that won’t make front page headlines but are still worthy of attention. If you have questions about these bills or any other please drop me a line at email@example.com
Cutler Corner is a monthly column published in the Pembroke Mariner by Rep Josh Cutler.
When a homeowner enjoys a higher standard of notification when their neighbor down the street builds a swimming pool than when a public utility company comes on their own private property and cuts down their trees, clearly there is something out of balance.
Yet that is the frustrating situation faced by many South Shore and Cape Cod residents during the recent round of “vegetation management” programs conducted by our regional electric utility companies.
There is no dispute that keeping transmission lines free of interference, stray tree branches and overgrown vegetation is a necessary part of the process in order to provide safe and reliable electricity transmission in an economically viable fashion.
In many ways our public utilities are in an unenviable position. We demand exactingly high standards –– 100% uptime, zero interruptions, plentiful energy supply at affordable rates, with of course zero inconvenience to us.
However that does not mean that we should allow the process to run roughshod without regard for local concerns. The impacts of local tree clearing on property taxes and home values, our drinking water supply, public safety and wildlife habitat can and should be heard and respected during this process.
As a legislator working with frustrated neighbors and as a homeowner living through this experiences myself, I saw too often that defenders of the status quo would fall back on simplistic slogans, creating straw men arguments and dismissing critics as NIMBYS who didn’t care about providing a reliable power supply. None of which serves to advance the debate or solve the problem.
There may be valid reasons why cutting down a 16-foot apple tree to protect a 60-foot high transmission line is required to prevent power outages, or that spraying chemicals instead of mowing is the only economically feasible way to prevent re-growth of invasive vegetation, but unless there is a public process that involves all stakeholders, few will be satisfied with the outcome.
There’s an expression we’ve all heard that may be appropriate here: can’t see the forest for the trees. Put another way, we get so close to the problem that sometimes we need to step back, reassess and take a new approach. Given the recent experiences of many towns undergoing vegetation management programs, I think it’s time for all of us to do just that.
For that reason, I have filed legislation to establish a special commission to investigate the fiscal and environmental impact of vegetation removal programs.
This commission would include representatives from the utility companies, town officials, legislators, environmental experts and private citizens. The commission members would report back after a designated period of time with recommendations to the legislature as to how we can improve the process for all parties.
The legislation to create this commission, (H. 3754), is being heard by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy at the State House this week.
I am hopeful that by putting all the key stakeholders together we can create a better process that will achieve our shared goal of providing safe and reliable energy transmission in a manner that is respectful of local concerns and protects our environment.
Rep. Josh Cutler represents the Sixth Plymouth District in the Mass. State Legislature.
While our political leaders in Washington D.C. can’t seem to agree on much, there are plenty of examples here in Massachusetts of Democrats and Republicans working together to find solutions.
One such effort is a bill to crack down on animal abuse in the wake of the horrific “Puppy Doe” case. The Protecting Animal Welfare and Safety (PAWS) act toughens animal abuse penalties and notably creates an animal abuser registry to allow breeders, shelters and pet stores to ensure that companion animals don’t end up in the hands of known abusers.
The legislation was originally drafted by Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, and has now earned broad bi-partisan support and has the backing of the MSPCA. I was pleased to add my support as a co-sponsor of this important bill.
Many readers have already heard the horrific details about the Puppy Doe case in Quincy. The young animal was found abandoned with a stab wound to her eye and a dislocated shoulder, elbow and ankle. Her tongue had been split to look like a serpent and there was evidence she had been burned and starved. The PAWS act would help to prevent similar atrocities and toughen penalties for animal abusers.
In addition to the animal abuse registry, the PAWS act establishes an anonymous animal abuse tip hotline and imposes of a fine of up to $1,000 for knowing and willful failure to report a suspected act of cruelty to an animal.
Additional highlights of the bill include:
• Expansion of the Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund to include the rehabilitation and care of abused animals.
• Enhanced penalties for cruelty to animals, or maliciously killing, maiming, disfiguring, or exposing them to poison, with increased penalties imposed for a second or subsequent offense.
• Expanded discretion for the courts to impose additional penalties in cases involving aggravating factors, including cases where the abuse is systematic or involves multiple animals.
• Increased penalties for a hit-and-run conviction on a cat or dog.
• Creation of a statewide registry of individuals convicted of animal abuse crimes, to be cross-checked by all animal shelters, pet stores and animal breeders prior to offering, selling, delivering, or giving an animal to any individual.
These are common sense steps we can take to address the issue of animal abuse in Massachusetts. It is unfortunate that a heart-wrenching incident such as “Puppy Doe” happened in the first place, but if positive change can occur as a result then it will not be for naught.
The legislation, which now has 75 co-sponsors in the Mass. House and Senate, has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and a hearing date will be set later this year.
Rep. Josh Cutler (D-Duxbury) represents the Sixth Plymouth District and is the former editor and publisher of The Pet Gazette.