As the November election edges closer, I sat down with State Senator Anthony Petruccelli at his office in the State House. He has been in the Senate since July 2007 representing the First Suffolk Middlesex District. In addition to the North End, the district includes Beacon Hill, Cambridge, East Boston, Revere and Winthrop.
In this first part of the interview series, the Senator talks about his accomplishments and views on major state legislation issues, including prospects for the casino bill.
Senator, thank you for taking the time to sit down with NorthEndWaterfront.com. Let’s get started with some general questions. What are you most proud of since you have been State Senator?
Transportation reform was a big issue for me. And for the North End, it was very important to save the toll discount for residents. The threat of a $7 increase at the tolls was very real and would have had a significant impact on the many lives in my district. There was also a real risk the discount would have gone away when the Turnpike was merged into the new transportation department, MassDOT. Other parts of the state would love to have something like that, so I consider it a significant win for my constituents. It was my first big battle with a lot of work and challenges. I am proud of the way it turned out, especially with the toll discount written into the law.
In addition, we had the MassDOT board keep the business discount program in place at the Parcel 7 garage. This is important for the North End residents and businesses. Again, it could have easily gone away. I made the case for the businesses of the community and it was another good victory. In general, transportation reform puts Massachusetts on a much more sustainable path for its transportation delivery system. There is still a lot of work, including the $20 billion problem for the road and bridge work due to deferred maintenance. We needed to do something bold with this law and had to make some major changes.
Not all Democrats supported transportation reform, primarily because it made some labor unions nervous. But I felt the changes were necessary. The “23 and out” retirement provision for the MBTA system was unsustainable. We had to eliminate that. The healthcare benefits for some employees and retirees were also unsustainable so we brought them into the GIC which made a lot of unhappy people in some circles. Again, it was a necessary change for the good of the Commonwealth.
How about the Crime Bill?
The Crime Bill and CORI reform were important and I personally added language to close a loophole for sex offenders. It’s an interesting story. A couple in Revere came up to me after a forum. There daughter was a rape victim and the offender served his time and was supposed to be wearing a GPS tracking device when he came out of jail. But, since he was living in a homeless shelter, he was exempted. This was a void in the law that was being taken advantage of by sex offenders. The amendment that I wrote closed that loophole. I think it is a good example of how government should work between constituents and their elected officials.
Is foreclosure legislation a big issue for your constituents?
While not as much in the North End, there have been a lot of foreclosures in Revere and East Boston. We recently increased the right to cure from 90 to 150 days. I used to hold a real estate license so I understand the business. We also added license requirements for loan originators (i.e., mortgage brokers) and added 3rd party review for reverse mortgages to protect our seniors. I thought it was common sense.
Looking forward, what are your most important priorities if elected for another term?
Priorities 1, 2 and 3 are creating jobs in Massachusetts. I think we have done a real good job in this State creating a competitive advantage. This was recently recognized by business newstation CNBC that ranked us #5 in the country from a business competitive standpoint. I think you hear rhetoric on the campaign trail that we are falling behind, but it is factually not true.
Toward the end of the session, we addressed small business health insurance. This was a huge priority for me because with healthcare costs rising so quickly, it is impeding our small businesses from hiring. In some cases, health insurance rates were going up 30% a year and that is not sustainable, nor affordable.
One of the pieces that I led with the retailers association allows for the “group buy,” allowing small businesses to join together and lump their employees to achieve a cheaper insurance product. We hope to achieve a 10-12% discount. This should hopefully free up some money for small businesses to hire more people.
Another piece of that is to bring down healthcare costs. I don’t think it’s an easy solution but we are taking some steps. Having doctors and hospitals keep electronic records is part of the healthcare cost control bill from two years ago. Another important part is to create wellness programs for more preventative measures to make people less reliant on their doctors.
Before we get to the casino issue, could you talk about your role as Senate Chair on the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture?
We don’t have some of the items that many folks think because the Energy Committee deals with issues like wind power. Even the bottle bill is in a different committee.
One agenda item for the committee that has been slow to gain steam is electronic recycling or e-waste. Boston has specific pick-ups for electronics, but that cost money for Boston and similarly for other cities and towns. As a way to save these municipalities from these costs, we are looking at legislation to have producers take responsibility. Some retailers already take back old TVs and computers for recycling. Best Buy already does it and it is built into their price. If we make this mandatory, we need to figure out where the cost is going to shift.
Creating safe alternatives to toxic chemicals is another important issue for the committee. We already do a lot through the existing 20 year old law and through work at the University of Massachusetts. I think everyone agrees reducing toxic chemicals will create a safer world. The question is how do we expand what we already do. The committee continues to review various bills on the issue.
At the moment, we don’t want to hurt businesses with regulation that would cause them not to hire more workers because we need them to be competitive and create jobs. But eventually, we need to find a way to move a bill down the field without affecting jobs. I expect a bill to be considered by this committee in the next session.
In the North End, there is some controversy against the Bottle Bill because it encourages trashpickers to roam the streets at night and tear open trash bags. Do you support the expansion of the bottle bill to include water and juice bottles?
Yes, I do. My grandfather ran a grocery store so I have seen the bottle bill first hand. One of the biggest concerns that I have with an expanded bottle bill is not to put more of a burden on our small businesses. In an urban setting, there is not enough space. It is important to have a small business exemption because they can’t handle it, based on a retailer’s square footage.
What is interesting is that the products have changed with people drinking more bottled water and Gatorade products. My colleagues have resisted to support it because they don’t want it to look like another tax. But it is very different and more of a deposit than a tax.
There has been a lot of press coverage on the casino issue. Is it safe to say the issue is dead for this year?
I would say there is less than a 1% chance the legislature will come back and take it up before January. Although, I support coming back into a special session because I think the jobs are too important.
What is your interpretation as to why the casino bill did not go through this year and what is going to be different next year?
Remember, the legislature will be different next session after the election and retirements. There even could be a different Governor, although, I am a strong supporter of Governor Deval Patrick.
It really is a shame the way it turned out. If it were up to me, I would have sent the Governor a bill that he would have signed. He was pretty clear when he said he would sign a bill with three resort casinos and one slot component at a racetrack. The Senate bill had just the three casino resorts. Heck, I would support even just two because I expect the Suffolk Downs concept to be very competitive. If the bill had passed, Wonderland would not have been closed and Suffolk Downs would have not have had layoffs. Getting back to your question about priorities, it is all about jobs.
You fought for a referendum to give East Boston a referendum on the casino. Why did the referendum not include your entire district?
For the people of East Boston, they are geographically isolated and have put up with a lot of things that they did not necessarily want. Airport runways, tunnels and highways come to mind. These are economic necessities that drive the engine of our economy. People in East Boston want a shot to decide such a major issue on their own. If there were a citywide vote that passed and the people of East Boston said no, it would be a shame. I think it is appropriate that they have a say.
What type of community benefits will you seek from a Suffolk Downs casino?
We will have a public dialogue once we have a law. I envision a robust, transparent discussion with Suffolk Downs ownership as they go through the application process. The community will have an opportunity to ask for financial community benefits, non-profit assistance and roadway improvements. Suffolk Downs spent $150,000 this year and that number could go to $2 million with a resort casino law.
In the North End, I can see benefits to organizations like North End Against Drugs, Friends of the Christopher Columbus Park and similar groups throughout the district. There will also have to be major infrastructure improvements, particularly along the Route 1 corridor, East Boston, Winthrop and Revere. There is a lot to be done. I know Suffolk Downs is willing to participate in a way that you won’t see coming from any other type of business.
In a future part of this series, hear Senator Petruccelli’s view on Haz-Mat trucks in the North End, potential library branch closings, crime/public safety, trash, the Greenway, alcohol licenses, a new downtown school, certain development projects and taxes.