Lawmakers worked furiously in waning hours of legislative session

Lobbyists gathered outside the House chamber near the end of formal sessions Tuesday. — Photo by State House News Service

Gov. Deval Patrick and members of the Senate and House worked feverishly in the waning hours of the 2012 legislative session that ended at midnight, Tuesday, according to reports from the State House News Service.

In last few days of legislative work, Governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers skirmished over a number of controversial bills and provisions.

It was down to the wire for a sentencing bill that had circulated on Beacon Hill for ten years.

Despite reservations about it, on Monday Governor Patrick said he would sign a sentencing reform bill that will allow as many as 600 non-violent drug offenders to become immediately eligible for parole and eliminate parole eligibility for certain three-time violent offenders, a measure that proponents say targets the “worst of the worst” and will improve public safety.

“I asked for a balanced bill and, after many twists and turns, the Legislature has given me one,” Patrick said in a statement. “Because of the balance between strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety, I have said that this is a good bill. I will sign this bill.”

The Legislature on Monday rejected a Patrick amendment to the bill that would have given judges sentencing discretion in cases involving three-time violent felons who will become ineligible for parole under the new law. Patrick’s judicial discretion amendment failed in the House on a 132-23 vote and the Senate rejected it by voice vote.

Les Gosule, whose daughter Melissa was murdered in 1999 by a habitual offender, has called on Patrick repeatedly in recent days to sign the bill, or be “man enough” to veto it quickly so the Legislature could override the veto.

Patrick had the option of vetoing the legislation after lawmakers finished formal sessions for the year at midnight Tuesday, which would have killed a bill that critics say is too heavy-handed and will worsen prison overcrowding.

In his statement, Patrick said the bill would “start to move us away from the expensive and ineffective policy of warehousing non-violent drug offenders towards a more reasonable, smarter supervision and substance abuse program.”

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which fought the bill’s passage, predicted Tuesday that Massachusetts would need to revisit the new law in the “near future.”

“It is unfortunate that the flawed Three Strikes legislation will now be implemented in Massachusetts,” Mr. Walker said. “It will exacerbate the state’s already severely overcrowded prison system, do little to reduce crime or recidivism rates, and cost Massachusetts taxpayers millions.”

Also Monday, the House (134-19) and Senate (24-10) voted to override the Governor’s veto of a vehicle registration bill supporters said would increase public safety by preventing people in the country illegally from registering their cars without being in possession of a driver’s license.

Friday, Mr. Patrick called the bill “flawed.” In a letter to lawmakers he said, “Without a legitimate public safety purpose, this bill appears to be aimed at using the RMV to identify and police undocumented people.”

Mr. Patrick had tried to amend the proposal when it first came to his desk in the fiscal 2013 budget by changing the proof-of-legal-residency requirement, to proof of residency in the Commonwealth.

The vote split Island lawmakers. Senator Dan Wolf of Barnstable voted to sustain the Governor’s veto. Representative Tim Madden of Nantucket voted to override the veto.

In another Monday skirmish, the Senate attached an amendment to a $42.2-million supplemental budget that would require the Patrick administration to file semi-annual reports on compliance and enforcement of new electronic benefit transfer card restrictions.

When he signed the restrictions on Friday, Governor Patrick said he supported the EBT reforms banning the use of public welfare benefits to purchase things like alcohol, pornography and firearms, but warned lawmakers that his administration would not enforce the ban in establishments where the technology does not exist to differentiate between acceptable and prohibited purchases.

During Senate debate on Monday, Sen. Bruce Tarr, who sponsored the amendment requiring the reports, called the governor’s statement “unbelievable.” After the Senate adopted the amendment on a voice vote, Mr. Tarr said “the laws we pass have to mean something.”

Mr. Patrick signed the bill Friday while cautioning that his administration “will not enforce what cannot be enforced with respect to the use of EBT cards.” Mr. Patrick had sent the bill back with an amendment to narrow the scope of the proposal to focus on establishments where EBT spending would be banned, rather than on individual items that can be sold in a variety of stores.

The Legislature rejected his amendment and sent their original bill back to him. The new law restricts the use of EBT cards for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, Lottery tickets, jewelry, manicures and at liquor stores; casinos, strip clubs, adult bookstores or adult paraphernalia shops, firearms and ammunitions dealers, tattoo parlors, spas, bars and drinking establishments, and cruise ships.

Last-minute work Sunday night by a House and Senate conference committee pushed an energy bill to the Governor’s desk.

Supporters of the bill said it would boost renewable energy projects and force competition for long-term contracts, increase the amount of power solar and wind energy owners can sell back to the grid, and increase the frequency of electric company rate cases.

Opponents said that because renewable energy costs anywhere from two to five times as much as conventional fuels, this will increase the cost of electricity for ratepayers. Sen. Benjamin Downing, the lead negotiator on the Senate, said the compromise bill (S 2395) crafted a balance between concerns about the environment and the economy.

Although the state’s full-time lawmakers will be paid through the rest of 2012, they are expected to focus more squarely on their reelection efforts, and constituent services. Lightly attended informal sessions will continue through 2012. During those sessions, any lawmaker can block the advancement of any bill and legislative leaders typically try to advance only bills upon which they can get unanimous, bipartisan agreement, according to the State House News Service.