Not all news from Beacon Hill is bad

BEACON HILL — Since Nov. 18, when the Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling in Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, a tsunami of news has flowed out of the Statehouse — every day another report, another poll, another voice stating their support or opposition to the controversial decision.

Despite the turmoil, not all news coming out of Beacon Hill is bad news.

Before recessing from the 2003 Legislative Session on Nov. 19, lawmakers upheld the Church’s positions on several important issues affecting the Bay State. During the month of November, state officials rejected legalizing casino gambling, debated the creation of “safe havens” for unwanted newborns, and removed controversial embryonic stem cell research from a $100 million economic stimulus package.

On Nov. 6, a proposal that would legalize Class III gambling, the type that includes slot machines and casinos, was withdrawn from the state senate floor. Despite the apparent defeat of the measure, both opponents and proponents of legalized casino gambling agree that the issue will likely arise once again when lawmakers debate next year’s budget.

Sen. Brian P. Lees, R-East Longmeadow, one of the backers of the proposals, withdrew the amendment due in part to a lack of support.

"Those amendments were withdrawn because they don't have the votes," stated Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster. "If those votes were there, those bills would have been trotted out of here quicker than the ghost of Seabiscuit."

The proposal had called for a new Gaming Commission that would sell $25 million licenses to build video slot machine parlors in each of the state’s four racetracks. In addition, two $150 million licenses would have been issued to build two resort casinos — one in central Massachusetts and the other in the southeastern part of the state.

As was first reported in the Oct. 31 issue of The Pilot, proponents argued that casino gambling would help alleviate the state’s budget deficit, generating as much as $400 million in revenue for the state.

Opponents, such as Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover, vice-chairperson of the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Regulation and staunch gambling foe, argued that residents would need to gamble and lose $2 billion to raise the anticipated $400 million in revenues. According to Sen. Tucker, that amounts to a family of four losing $1,400 per year and would be the equivalent of a 7 percent increase in the current tax rate. In addition, casino gambling undeniably victimizes the poor and is often a magnet for other illicit activities, including increased crime rates and prostitution.

"This is a very proud day for the Massachusetts Senate," Sen. Tucker said in a speech delivered moments after backers voluntarily withdrew their legislation.

“Casino gambling is an inappropriate response to address the financial needs of the Commonwealth,” Gerald D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, said in an Oct. 27 interview with The Pilot.

State lawmakers also took up the Safe Haven bill in the last week of the 2003 legislative session.

The bill would allow parents to drop off their unwanted newborns at so-called “safe havens,” such as fire stations, hospital emergency rooms or police stations, without fear of prosecution. The intent of the law is to save the lives of unwanted newborns whose parents may otherwise abandon them in unsafe, potentially deadly, conditions.

Following a June 18 hearing of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, the bill was held up in committee until Nov. 17 — just two days before the end of the legislative session.

Although no final decision was made on the Safe Haven bill, D’Avolio believes the legislators are “favorable” to the bill.

"The Church supports the Safe Haven bill," explained D'Avolio. "This bill is an opportunity for women in distress to leave their baby in an approved setting. It provides an opportunity to save the life of a child."

Massachusetts is currently one of only eight states that has no such safe haven law.

Also, hours before the clock ran out on this year’s legislative session, the economic stimulus package was approved without the controversial endorsement of cloning for the purpose of embryonic stem cell research.

The $100 million economic stimulus package, which was approved by state lawmakers on Nov. 19, differed from the one the Massachusetts Senate approved — which included language endorsing embryonic stem cell research. The new economic stimulus package will overturn the historic ban on Sunday liquor sales in the Bay State, as well as provide a one day sales tax “holiday.”

As was previously reported in The Pilot, the state senate had approved a package unveiled by Senate President Robert Travaglini, D-East Boston, which included language supporting embryonic stem cell research, as well as cloning for the purpose of that research.

Proponents argued that endorsing such research would support companies in the lucrative biotech industry that might otherwise consider leaving the state. Opponents such as John O’Connor, economics professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, asserted that the biotech industry would continue to thrive in Massachusetts without legislation actively encouraging cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, called the cloning and stem cell language in the bill “the most disturbing and incoherent” he had ever seen.

Ultimately, the language was removed by a House-Senate conference committee created to review the language in the economic stimulus package.

These conference committees are generally set up when a bill voted on by the house and senate are measurably different from one another. The committee is comprised of three house representatives and three senators whose task it is to review both bills and revise the language into a form acceptable to both legislative bodies.

Although the meetings are held in private, one statehouse insider speculated that the house members objected to the embryonic stem cell research language and thus removed it from the package.

Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the MCC, praised the removal of the language from the economic stimulus package, crediting in part the “grassroots efforts” of several Catholic and non-Catholic organizations, such as Massachusetts Citizens for Life and MCC-Net, which sent out bulletins to all its members asking them to call Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran, D-Mattapan, to voice their opposition.

"We were told by the staff it was an incredible number of phone calls they received from Massachusetts citizens who were vehemently opposed to the stem cell language," he said.

Avila admits that the Church alone does not mold lawmakers’ opinions on these important issues. However, he believes it does have some influence over public policy.

Speaking from his Beacon Hill office, Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran agreed. “The Church’s position on these issues carries weight because the people involved are respected.”

"The Church is listened to. It's a viable part of the community," he added.