High-Speed Rail, Criminal Justice, Cannabis Control: The Week Ahead On Beacon Hill

Oct 23, 2017

This week on Beacon Hill, lawmakers hear from western Massachusetts residents who say the region needs to be connected to Boston and Worcester by high-speed rail. 

State Senator Eric Lesser has been trying to get the state to study such a proposal, but he keeps coming up short. Matt Murphy of the State House News Service said Lesser's bill has an interesting history in the legislature.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: That’s been a bit frustrating for Senator Lesser, who’s been trying to get this study done of expanding high-speed rail to western Massachusetts. And the Senate has twice passed this, [and] included it in the budget. One time, Governor Baker vetoed it, and just this past year, it was dropped in the final conference report between the House and the Senate for the budget. So it hasn’t gotten done yet.

State Sen. Eric Lesser, from Longmeadow, Mass.
Credit Nik Nadeau / Creative Commons

And this hearing — you know, the senator from Longmeadow is pulling out all the stops. He’s busing in constituents who are planning to testify about what high-speed rail to western Mass. would mean for them, enabling them to commute to jobs in other parts of the state. He has launched a website where people can tell their stories.

I think he's really hoping to take the opportunity that the Senate has — the efforts the Senate put into studying transportation recently, and the report they wrote and published in hopes of developing future legislation to push this forward, and maybe have people take a second look.

Sam Hudzik, NEPR: And just to be clear, this fight isn't even about funding high-speed rail. This is about a study of high-speed rail.

That’s true. It is just a study. I mean, certainly, funding another rail line, given how long we’ve seen it’s taken for progress to be made on extending commuter rail to the south coast of Massachusetts, a project of this magnitude would be difficult to fund. And it’d be competing against a lot of other priorities if it were to get that far.

But we've heard people like the governor express concerns even with just studying this, because Senator Lesser’s bill — and in the amendments he's filed that focus specifically on high-speed rail — and some people, as they look at the cost constraints, don't want to rule out other forms of transportation that could better connect western Mass. to areas east of Worcester and Boston -- like bus, or slower passenger rail, for instance, so they kind of want to take a broader approach to this.

But there is a lot of support, and it's not just from western Mass. There are a number of Boston-area lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, who support this. So it should be interesting to see whether or not this can gain some steam.

We talked last week about the criminal justice overhaul that’s pending in the legislature. The Senate, I understand, is moving ahead with debate later this week on its version of that bill. There are going to be a number of amendments filed on this. Do you get the sense that when this is all over, the Senate bill’s going to be narrowed, or watered down?

I don’t. I can only assume that this will probably just get added to. I think you’re right on, that there will be many amendments filed to this bill, and the Senate has kind of teed it up for a Thursday debate.

It did go through some changes. The original bill, written by Senator William Brownsberger, got a bit of a rewrite as it moved through the Ways and Means Committee in the Senate. Some minor modifications, some adjustments in particular to the statutory rape changes that Governor Baker expressed some concern with. But I think the general scope of this bill is likely to remain intact, at least in the Senate. What happens when it moves to the House is a different question. They may want to take a more narrow, targeted approach to some of these measures.

Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steve Hoffman congratulated Shawn Collins on Thursday in the treasurer's office suite.
Credit Sam Doran / State House News Service

And finally, you've been keeping us up-to-date on the goings-on at the most recently created Massachusetts state agency: the Cannabis Control Commission. The commission now has its first staff member, an executive director, and unlike nearly everything else in this process so far, it was a decision that all sides on the marijuana issue seemed to approve of.

They did, to the point that it almost looked pre-arranged, but new Commissioner Steve Hoffman insisted this was not. And you know, this new executive director Shawn Collins, he essentially has been preparing for this job for several years now, working as Assistant Treasurer under [Deborah] Goldberg; he was preparing for the eventuality that this could pass at the ballot, which it did. The ballot law itself put the Cannabis Control Commission under the purview of the treasurer, and he was preparing to do a lot of the regulation work.

When the legislature rewrote that law, they created this new independent board, but Shawn Collins emerged -- at least for them, unanimously -- as the person with both the experience in government, the knowledge of the industry, and the right temperament to kind of lead this effort as they’re working under very tight deadlines, and don't have a lot of time for on-the-job learning.

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