State Senator Anthony Petruccelli and State Representative Aaron Michlewitz hosted an “Open Forum” in the North End this week to discuss State issues going into the end of the 2009-2010 legislative session. This was not a campaign event, although both the Senator and Representative are running for re-election this November. Both are Democrats and so far, there are no opposing candidates for either position. Petruccelli has been in office since 2007 and Michlewitz since 2009.
The forum touched on many subjects, often surrounded by the reality of the tough economy and pressures on the State’s budget. Here are some highlights.
Casinos – Both legislators emphasized that there is no bill yet on which to comment or take a position. However, it was clear that Senator Petruccelli favored some type of gambling at Suffolk Downs while Representative Michlewitz remains undecided. Senator Petruccelli noted that Suffolk Downs is the only place for the thoroughbred industry in the State and it needs help. He defended the right for the industry to survive and slots will help that. He cautioned that the “racino” concept was not attractive, but it might be easier to support a resort that would bring capital, construction and jobs.
Michlewitz said, “I am not where Anthony is on the casino issue, but as I said in the campaign, I am not an automatic no.” When he sees a bill, it will be easier to weigh the benefits versus the costs. Petruccelli said, “It comes down to jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Resident David Kubiak said he was “afraid of a casino going into Suffolk Downs because it will bring more congestion to the North End” as patrons come looking to eat. He believes Boston needs to compete on a different level rather than bringing the same thing as other places, such as replicating Foxwoods.
Petruccelli noted that it will be difficult to find a better location than Suffolk Downs that is positioned for such activity near the city. Prince Street resident Mark Paul compared the casino concerns to the office tower park concept at Government Center Garage where it will bring thousands more people to the edge of a neighborhood that is already saturated. “The neighborhood is at capacity. Help us protect the quality of life in the North End.” He noted proposed efforts by North End restaurants to offer “wampum dollars” to casino patrons to spend in the North End.
Bill Lane noted that while he is against gambling, he accepts that it is likely to happen. He asked the legislators to be skeptical about the numbers promised to the State by the casino companies. Michlewitz picked up on the point saying he would need to see how the dollars add up. Petruccelli noted that much of that money is going to Connecticut today, although many of the social ills come back to the Commonwealth. He said the State’s funding of programs to deal with addictions is woefully underfunded. Donna Freni commented that there is also a “cost to the joblessness.”
Education Reform Bill
One of the recent State bills to make it to law is the Education Reform Bill, aimed at turning around underperforming schools and expand access to charter schools for Massachusetts students. Michlewitz discussed his work on an amendment to open the door to Charter Schools. He noted that Charter Schools are unlikely to be considered near the North End given the solid performance of the Eliot School. Both legislators hinted that the bill might have been improved with more reform measures, but they still considered it a strong step forward. Petruccelli noted that legislators took some flack from teacher advocacy groups for de-emphasizing collective bargaining, but felt the benefits outweighed the risk. He also noted that a traditional school day does not always work and schools should be able to offer alternatives.
Green Ticket Bill
Representative Michlewitz worked with the Senator and other legislators to pass the Green Ticket Bill early in 2010. In a piece of breaking news, Boston’s City Council voted to opt-in to the bill this week. Michlewitz chose this bill on which to make his maiden speech. The Green Ticket Bill adds some teeth to tickets issued by Code Enforcement for violations of trash regulations. It would automatically add trash fines to the property owners tax bill. Rep. Michlewitz said, “This provision will be an effective tool in keeping our streets clean.” The bill will also have a positive impact on the State’s budget as an estimated $5 million in unpaid fines has been estimated.
Senator Petruccelli discussed the early progress of the nearly year-old Transportation Reform Bill that has already saved over $100 million, consolidated multiple agencies and eliminated the MBTA’s controversial “23 and out” retirement policy. In the Senator’s district, fighting back the proposed toll increase was also a significant achievement.
The legislators spoke about the importance of creating jobs in a tough economy. Petruccelli discussed initiatives in life sciences as key to keeping the Commonwealth a destination for that industry. He also mentioned a walkthrough of the North End talking to small business owners. “We want businesses that care for the community. Right now, small businesses are having a tough time in the North End.” Both officials support ways to reduce health insurance premiums for small businesses.
Gas Tax– Downtown legislators have an easy time supporting a gas tax, although it is generally unpopular outside the city. Last year, the State raised the sales tax as part of its budget. Petruccelli reiterated that the State needs some way to pay for upgrading its transportation infrastructure.
Some notable comments from the audience:
Bobby DeCristoforo – The government wastes too much money on small things that add up, such as Census reminders before it comes out, Census TV advertising and extensive paperwork for government programs. Many schools also have repetitive layers of management.
Bill Lane – The State needs to provide reliable transportation to get into the city, otherwise commuters are forced to drive and park. Many towns are cut off from reliable rail transport.
Nancy Caruso – State employees can accumulate vacation time and get a bonus check for it while most private companies have a “if you don’t use it, you lose it” policy. There also are questions regarding “per diem” for state employee transportation costs. She would rather the State pay higher salaries and no perks. Michlewitz said that he has chosen not to take his per diem to date given the furloughs and sacrifices of his own staff. Petruccelli quipped, “Can I take yours?”
Francine Gannon – Thanked both legislators for signing a letter against the C.V. license of Boston Gliders on Commercial Street.
Matt Conti asked whether the legislation that funds up to $5.5 million per year ($3.0 million this year) to the Greenway Conservancy makes sense given the State’s budget crisis. Michlewitz noted the legislation was made in a different economic time and that the high salaries at the Conservancy were never intended while State employees in similar positions are being furloughed or laid off. Petruccelli indicated his desire to keep the parks open for public use. Both legislators support the Shadow Bill that prevents excessive development on certain parks, including Christopher Columbus Park.
David Kubiak asked about prospects for real planning where residents and businesses would have a framework to use for development. Petruccelli talked about his time in the Mayor’s office where plans for the neighborhoods were made. Michlewitz indicated the BRA is a subject of future discussion, noting legislation such as the Shadow Bill create protections that help the neighborhoods. There was a discussion about how the experience of the West End cannot be repeated. Nancy Caruso was optimistic that a new collaborative process for Parcel 9 could be a model for future development.