Pay equity, cell phone driving and records bills on deck in 2016

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STATE HOUSE — The Senate is gearing up for a mid-January session to pass legislation banning the use of a handheld cell phone use by motorists, and later in the month could pass a pay equity bill before debating public records reform in February.

The “tentative” agenda – subject to change – for the Senate in early 2016 features an easing of lobster processing rules, promotion of proper paint stewardship and more detailed requirements on emissions reduction.

Members of the Senate were presented by branch leaders with an outline for the first three formal sessions of the new year this week.

The hands-free mobile phone bill (S 2032) that could be taken up in the Senate’s first formal session of the year on Jan. 21, and differs somewhat from a similar bill (H 3315) that began advancing in the House this fall.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, would impose escalating fines of $100 to $500 for those caught talking on a cell phone while driving without use of a hands-free device. Exceptions would be made for emergencies, under the bill.

One of the most popular bills filed this session, a pay equity bill supported by dozens of lawmakers, Attorney General Maura Healey and Treasurer Deb Goldberg, aims to close the wage gap for women and people of color and is slated to come before the Senate in their second formal session of the year on Jan. 28.

Filed by Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the Senate’s pay equity bill (S 983) has 44 other cosponsors. More than 100 legislators signed onto a House version of the pay equity bill (H 1733).

The bill seeks to amend an existing state law requiring that men and women earn the same pay for equal work by specifically laying out criteria for what makes two jobs alike. It also bans employers from punishing workers for discussing wages and requires employers to include minimum salaries or wages in a job posting.

Under current law, men and women must be paid the same for work that is “like or comparable,” allowing for differences in seniority. The pay equity bill defines positions as comparable if they “entail comparable skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions between employees of the opposite gender.”

Right before the winter break, the House passed a public records reform bill (H 3858) that allows those seeking public records to recoup legal fees in a records lawsuit and establishes deadlines of 60 or 75 days for public entities to produce records, up from the current, often surpassed deadline of 10 days.

The House bill, which quieted Massachusetts Municipal Association protests about unfunded mandates, received tepid endorsement from those advocating overhaul of the 40-year-old law.

“Once the House votes, we can make sure the Senate passes even stronger legislation with everything our state truly needs,” Common Cause Massachusetts wrote in an email. The bill is currently in Senate Ways and Means, and has been penciled in for debate in the Senate on Feb. 4.

Along with the hands-free cell phone bill, the Senate has tentative plans for Jan. 21 to take up legislation dealing with greenhouse gases, lobster processing and paint stewardship.

Another bill pertaining to jury law reform is slated for discussion on Jan. 28 after passing the House unanimously in June.

The jury bill (H 1354) consolidates two sections of state law governing juries. During debate in the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Fernandes said the legislation would clear up confusion about existing jury selection laws that override each other.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and the Senate president pro tempore, filed a bill (S 458) that would establish benchmarks on the way toward the requirement that the state reduce its carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Officials have said the state is at risk of missing its goal of a 25 percent reduction by 2020, now less than five years away, unless additional steps are taken. Pacheco’s bill would require the Bay State to reduce carbon emissions 35 to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 55 to 65 percent below by 2040.

“We can do this. This isn’t like it can’t be done,” Pacheco told the News Service. He said the bill is “consistent” with the Paris climate agreement, which set a goal for limiting the rise in global temperature. Pacheco said the state would need to be “aggressive” in reducing transportation emissions and cognizant of greenhouse gas reduction goals when blueprinting its mix of electricity generation.

“I agree with the administration that we do need to move forward with some imported clean energy,” said Pacheco, who said that could include importation of Canadian hydroelectricity or wind energy from Maine.

The Baker administration also supports expanding the infrastructure for natural gas – a fuel that is cleaner and generally cheaper than coal or oil. Some environmentalists oppose that move, arguing it keeps the state hooked on carbon-emitting fuels when it should move more aggressively to renewable sources.

A Sen. Bruce Tarr bill (S 469) set to be taken up in the first formal Senate session of the year on Jan. 21 would allow for in-state sale of frozen in-shell lobster parts, and would allow for the display and sale of previously frozen, raw, in-shell tails.

A 2012 report by the Department of Fish and Game found that over the past three decades “the global lobster market has moved away from whole live lobsters and towards process lobster products.”

Current law permits the sale of frozen lobster tail.

In a letter to Tarr last year, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association endorsed a similar change in law. The lobstermen said canned lobster is legally sold in Massachusetts and Canadian processors buy Bay State lobstermen’s product.

A Sen. Anne Gobi bill (S 408) would create the Massachusetts Paint Stewardship Program. The program would tack on an assessment fee to the price of all house paint sold in the state, with the proceeds funding the collection, reuse and recycling of unused paint. Paint manufacturers would run the program, and collection points could be set up at retailers or municipal government sites on a voluntary basis.

The proposed program has the support of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which says high disposal costs for unwanted paint have posed a challenge to municipalities for years. Opponents, including the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, worry that making consumers pay more for their paint would drive them to shop instead online or in New Hampshire.

Tarr and Sen. John Keenan have filed a total of eight amendments to the bill, which was first taken up on Nov. 18 in the last formal session of 2015. Tarr requested then that senators be given more time to consider the bill and proposed amendments.

— Written by Andy Metzger and Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service