NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Rep. Gailanne Cariddi was just getting her feet wet in her first session in the House of Representatives but Beacon Hill better watch out in the next.
The 1st Berkshire representative did not write bills, but met her colleagues, worked behind the scenes in committees and caucus and co-sponsored 90 bills. After spending time meeting with the various committees and seeing where bills have been held up, she is looking to make a big impact next year.
This year, the House passed some major reforms from an overhaul of health care to increasing green energy to making sure auto mechanics can get the information they need from manufacturers. Locally the town governments in the district will be seeing additional state aid.
iBerkshires sat down with Cariddi to discuss the past session and ask what to expect in the next. Cariddi, a North Adams Democrat, faces no opposition in the November election.
Q: What were some of the highlights from this Legislative session?
GC: In my first year in the Legislature, I was impressed with all of the legislation that actually moved through the system. There were more than 6,700 bills filed and more than 2,500 bills were passed through the whole process and sent to the governor.
This year, they came to compromise on a number of different bills like health care — huge, an over 300-page bill. I'm not going to kid you, I don't know everything about it. I know some of the highlights but not being on the committee, I don't know everything. I have faith that the committee worked hard, they talked to people across the commonwealth, held many meetings throughout the commonwealth. They talked to all of the players — insurance people, hospitals — they held in mind, the whole time, exactly what you need to hold in mind and that is the consumers of health care. I think they did an admirable job with everything they've done.
Another thing would be the energy bill. The energy bill was another huge comprehensive bill that we worked on. It's so good to know that Massachusetts wants to move forward in a renewable and green way because those are the kind of things that I am interested in, too. There is a number of things that not only affect the larger companies that play into our energy structure but also down to the consumer level, down to the homeowners. Net metering was increased and I think that is a good thing.
The other large piece of legislation was the economic development bill. That was huge. It was pushed through by the Speaker [Robert DeLeo]. It was one of the things he wanted to get done. It took months of work. It was also put through by a fellow in Western Mass, Chicopee Rep. [Joseph] Wagner, he was the chair of that committee. He has some Western Mass in him to make sure that we were going to be OK here.
One of the other things that was more minor but all proponents and opponents spent a lot of money in educating the Legislature on was the Right to Repair bill. The auto manufactures didn't want to give up all of their proprietary rights to information and smaller fix-it repair shops wanted more information to be able to repair. They made a compromise there and I'm happy with it. I think it will help kids like at McCann [Technical School], graduating from their automotive program. Hopefully, they will have more jobs and more work to be done in the local repair stations.
Q: What do you think will have the most impact on your district?
GC: I think the budget will have the most impact because we brought more money back to municipalities. I think sending more money back to municipalities to let them use it as they need is a key factor. All in all, one of the big things to remember is the leadership in both the House and the Senate was no new taxes. Passing these couple of budgets with no new taxes, I know what it is like to shift and squeeze things along. We tried to put in as much as we could for higher education and we have MCLA here also.
More recently that we passed was the transportation bond bill which will help with some local Chapter 90 monies to fix local roads. I am really interested in moving forward more with the infrastructure improvement because we weren't able to get through the dam repair bill. It would have set up a loan structure for dams and there are many dams that are very, very old and really in need of dismantling or repair. I see it as a huge preventive measure. People can't even see the dams but they are around here. There are three in North Adams that are over 100 years old and could use attention. They're dealing with one in Cheshire, too.
Redistricting. That's going to affect here the most because this district is dropping off the Franklin County towns and I asked for that. One of the reasons I say it is best for this district is that much of my time was taken up in the Franklin County towns and I am a Berkshire County person. I am a Berkshire County resident, I was born and raised in Berkshire County. (The towns are being picked up Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.)
This district lost more than 3,000 people so I needed to make that up. When you look at the small towns that are over there, you would have needed to pick up quite a few of the smaller towns. I would have been almost to Greenfield. It spreads you out because you have two [regional] Chambers of Commerce, you've got two regional type planning boards, you've got all those additional boards of selectmen and water districts. It is all duplicated and I spent a lot of time in the Franklin County area because of that.
By concentrating just on the Berkshires, I can focus on just what we need. Redistricting in this seat was a big thing. I will be going from 11 towns to nine towns and I am losing Savoy.
Q: How did redistricting change what you do?
CG: As soon as it changed, right away, I felt that I had 16 communities to take care of. I still have my Franklin County towns because they depend on me to put bills through and I had to put a couple of home-rule bills through for them. Then I was introducing myself to other towns.
Q: What were the changes to the Community Preservation Act?
GC: The Community Preservation Act was something that was backed by probably as many 80 legislators. It revised the existing legislation in a few ways that people asked for. (It now allows capital improvements, use of additional municipal revenues and exemption of up to a $100,000 commercial property exemption.)
The House budget doubled the funding for cities and towns through that legislation. It had been declining because of the problems with state funding. The funds dropped to 22 percent but now they are going to allocate $25 million in surplus revenues starting in 2013 into the Community Preservation Act Trust Fund. Currently the fees come from the fees from the Register of Deeds collection and they usually collect around $26 million a year so now that will put it back up to just about 100 percent.
Before you couldn't use it to use it for parks and ball fields and now you can use the money for things like that. Before you could do new projects like that but you couldn't rehab things. Now you can rehab an existing park so it wouldn't cost you as much money than putting in a new one.
Q: What bills were you either for or against but that you were on the losing end of?
CG: The dam bill was one of them and obviously the bottle bill. I am not the biggest environmentalist but I do see that as a very important bill. To me, it is not a tax and they tried to present it as a tax. You buy something and return the container you get the nickel back. I was really disappointed with that because I kind of followed that through from the beginning.
We were trying to get a bill for McCann students for surgical technologies. Those people who graduate from McCann with a surgical technologies certificate would actually have to go through a licensure process. Everyone else who works in an emergency room is licensed except the people who have these surgical technologies certificates. It got right down to the last incy, winchy, tiny little end and then a couple of what I'll call lobbyists nixed it.
Another one that we worked hard on and came right down to the last day was a bill to update optometry services. Optometrist right now in Massachusetts, we're one of the few states that can't test for glaucoma. It's a simple test when you go to get your eye exam that will tell you if you should go to an opthalmologist. That one might be harder to overcome because there are a lot of people against that, there is a lot of lobbying and there is more money on the other side that might nix it again.
Another one that did not go through that I would have supported and some people may not like this particularly but there was a bill put forward from one of the committees I was on, the Environment and Natural Resources and Agricultural, that would over a number of years do away with plastic bags that you see in the supermarket.
Another big bill was CURP that went through our committee. It is the Comprehensive Land Use Reform and Partnership Act. It helps communities get master plan funding. It requires every community to have master plans and to align their zoning with their master plans so everything is together.
They've been trying to get that through for about a dozen years now and it is really important for agencies like Berkshire County Regional Planning to help communities in their zoning and how they regulate.
Q: Which committees were you on and what were you able to accomplish in those committees?
CG: I am on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. Another was Municipalities and Regional Government and the third one is Tourism and Cultural Development.
I didn't put forth any bills but I did co-sponsor a lot of stuff especially in the agricultural committee. The municipalities committee had the dam bill and another one in municipalities was the overhaul in animal regulations. One of the things that that bill does is it revamps how animals are sold. I had a number of complaints from people who bought animals — like puppies — from breeders and they turned out to be not healthy. That particular bill tweaks the law so that these people need to have a certificate from a creditable veterinarian to say that the animal has been checked over by a doctor and is OK to be sold. I have a dog, I've always had dogs so I am always partial to that kind of stuff.
Q: Where there any bills that you were particularly proud of?
CG: I had co-sponsored 90 bills. A lot of things really helped the whole state. They help here but are not specifically for here.
A tremendous amount of the work that I do is being a district representative. That is taking in and trying to solve people's problems in the district. I spend a lot of time on that kind of work. People that have problems accessing motor vehicle registry, Mass Health, the Department of Revenue. All of those have been a big focus on what I am trying to do. When you only have one staff person, you kind of get bogged down in that kind of stuff.
Other than my committee work there is the work I do in my caucuses. The caucuses put forth legislation that is going to help with their particular caucus. One of those I am on is the higher education caucus. I am not on the Higher Education Committee, but I wanted to be on the caucus because we have MCLA. They did get a couple of pieces through the budget that they weren't able to get in previous budgets so there is some extra money now they can use for certain things.
Q: You are new to the House so can you talk about the learning curve you had to go through?
CG: There is some learning curve in the actual procedures — how a bill gets filed and how it moves through the committees. The big end of it was the constituent services. I've been doing that for more than 20 years as a city councilor. That's something I've always been doing so that was easy.
There was a little bit of a learning curve in the policies and procedures. I wouldn't say it was prohibitive. It was something that I was eager and willing to absorb. I like to go to the committees, I like to go to the chairman and I think I got to know a lot of people that way.
I think the last three days of session wasn't something I expected. I'm still trying to catch up with a few things. I am still waiting for a final recap because a lot of things just went by very quickly. A lot of things were help up until the end that were district specific like land takings and swapping.
Getting to know people and the needs of the entire commonwealth is a big task. I don't want to discount it at all but it has been something I enjoyed and look forward to doing again next session.
Q: In the next session, what are you going to be shooting for?
CG: As the session ended, you are supposed to go up and shake the hand of the Brian Dempsey, who was the co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and Speaker Robert DeLeo. As I went up, I shook his hand and said, 'I think I have the system down now, watch out next year.' I said that to both of them.
We're going to try and put forward some initiatives. One of the things of local concern is something called noncriminal disposition — which I actually helped write and presented to the City Council in North Adams — and it is way for communities to sort of tag people with a fine without having to take them to court. It works a lot in the Health Department, the Building Department and some with the Police Department.
What is happening is that in certain instances the fines are not being paid because there is no 'gotcha' after. I am working on legislation to make sure these fines are paid, that there is a consequence to not paying. If a commercial owner owes taxes, well, they're not going to get a certificate of occupancy from the Health Department.
We might have to work on enabling legislation for veteran's housing. There is a group of people that want to get a project done in North Adams. I've been approached by at least four parties independently that wanted to do either a home or health. I've written a bunch of letters to veterans on the federal level and down to Leeds trying to get something more here. It's ongoing now and certainly it will be an ongoing thing in the next session, too.
Some of these things don't set the world on fire, like getting a medical examiner. The county doesn't have a medical examiner. I've had a few calls from people saying that unfortunately their deceased person has not been released or their body is in Worcester or Boston. I tried to get language through in the budget to fund the medical examiner's office in Holyoke higher so we could have better service in Berkshire County. Unfortunately, it was rejected but it doesn't mean we won't try again.
Cable TV issues, it's more of a federal thing, but when they blacked out Channel 5, they made the paying public pay again for not having the channels that they were supposed to get. Somehow as we regulate these things, we should say that even though two companies have not come to an agreement, they can't black out the public from a channel they are paying for.
I am going to write a resolution. It's not a bill, it won't make anybody do anything. That is on the windfall provision for Social Security. Right now, if you work in this building [City Hall], the city yard or are teachers, if you are taking the public pension, then eventually you are not going to get all of your Social Security back.
To me, they should be getting all of their money back. We are only one of like six states that this is happening in so we are subsidizing the rest of the country with our Social Security payments.
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