At end of year, a look at Beacon Hill's tally of new laws
BOSTON >> There are many ways to measure a state Legislature's work, but — fair or not — one of the most direct is to look at what new laws they passed.
So what did Massachusetts voters and taxpayers get from the 40-member Senate and 160-member House of Representatives elected to represent their interests during the past 12 months on Beacon Hill?
As of mid-December, 151 bills have become law under the current Legislature — the 189th in the state's history. The tally doesn't count bills approved in the waning hours of 2014 and signed by former Gov. Deval Patrick in early January.
One hundred and fifty-one new laws may sound like a lot and Massachusetts residents could be forgiven for scratching their heads and wondering if they've been missing something.
But a closer look shows that a vast number of those new laws are so narrowly focused that they barely register a second glance — even from the lawmakers approving them.
Nearly a third of the new laws — 43, to be exact — are so-called "sick leave banks" for individual state workers.
A sick leave bank allows state employees to donate their unused vacation, personal and sick days to a co-worker who typically needs an extended time off to deal with a serious illness or injury.
Creating a sick leave bank literally requires act of the Legislature.
A bill must be filed on behalf of the employee. House and Senate lawmakers must vote to approve the bill — something that typically happens without debate. The bill must then be signed by the governor.
Sick leave banks aren't the only perfunctory kind of bills that contributed to the Legislature's 2015 output. A dozen new laws passed this year allowed additional alcohol-related licenses in individual cities and towns.
The state currently caps the number of licenses a city or town can grant under a formula based partly on population. Any requests for liquor licenses that exceed the cap must be brought before the Legislature.
Like his Democratic predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker wants to put control of liquor licenses in the hands of local cities and towns.
By far the largest category of new laws are requests from individual cities and towns for permission to take any number of local actions — from renaming a bridge, to seeking an exemption from the state's civil services laws for a specific individual, to validating the results of a local election.
Nearly 70 such bills, often known as "home rule petitions," have become law this year, not including the requests for alcohol licenses.
Legislative leaders have been quick to defend their accomplishments in 2015 — while also noting it is just the first year of a two-year session.
On November 18, the final day of formal sessions for 2015, Senate President Stan Rosenberg pointed to what he called the Senate's "long list of accomplishments from the past year."
They included bills on veteran issues and other bills "tackling fentanyl trafficking, promoting healthy youth, and protecting workers' and students' privacy when asked for their social media passwords from employers or education institution," Rosenberg said.
As they must every year, lawmakers also approved a new state budget — the Legislature's single most important and complex task.
Baker has been reluctant to criticize the Democrat-controlled Legislature — which he must work closely with — saying he understands they have a two-year session, although he has pressed them to act on drug and energy bills.
The to-do list remains long for 2016.
Among the major pieces of legislation left unfinished are proposals to address the state's opioid addiction crisis, overhaul the state's energy landscape, toughen the state's public records laws and enhance protections for transgender individuals.
That's on top of passing another state budget and preparing for elections.
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