[UPDATED Thursday, April 4, 1:14 p.m. to correct typo]
Massachusetts Rep. Gene O'Flaherty was elected to his ninth term in November, serving the Second Suffolk District which includes parts of his hometown of Chelsea as well as Charlestown. He was recently reappointed as chairman of the House Joint Committee on the Judiciary, a position he has held since 2002.
With the state budget season getting underway and legislators preparing to debate a new round of bills, Rep. O'Flaherty sat down with Charlestown Patch recently to talk about the job and some of the issues he will be discussing in the coming months.
What's going on at the Statehouse right now? Every two years when we begin our legislative session, there are approximately 6,000 bills on average that are filed for consideration. The House clerk and the Senate clerk begin the process of reviewing the bills and determining which committee it should go to. Usually when that process occurs, out of 6,000 bills roughly 1,000 of them alone will come to judiciary. So we handle one-sixth, roughly, of the workload. So that makes for a very busy committee, just going through each one of those bills.
What kind of bills do you see on the Judiciary Committee? The bills that we receive are generally the most controversial bills. We receive bills on the death penalty, on assisted suicide, on jail time. The issues that we deal with are generally emotional, complex, difficult issues that are brought into the public square because of some horrible current event that may have happened, some loophole that’s been identified in the law. Almost every one of our hearings has a very emotional story told, personal stories that are so tragic oftentimes that it can be difficult to maintain a sense of impartiality ias a human being. But that’s my role as a chair, to hear the evidence—both pro and con—and to then make a decision and to work with my committee members in arriving at the decision.
What bills will you be focusing on this season? As the chair, it’s my responsibility to make sure that all of the bar associations and all of the folks that are associated with the judiciary get their bills filed, whether I agree with them or not. For example, the Massachusetts Bar Association will come to me with 25 different proposals and say, can you file these, just to get them into the legislature for a discussion. I will file them as a courtesy, being the chair of the committee. Then, of course, I have my own bills because I have my own district as a representative, and I have organizations and individual citizens who need me to sign on to a piece of legislation or support a particular initiative.
Sounds like you're pretty busy. I think everybody’s busy. There’s only so much you can do from when you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night. Experience has taught me what I need to focus on, how to keep things going in terms of making sure that [my legislative aide] is in the neighborhood, so if I’m up here for a week in a budget debate and folks may not see me at Zume’s, that they know there’s a reason for it. I’ve always tried to stress that—regardless of titles and how much work we have and the complexity of what we deal with and the emotion sometimes that we deal with—the No. 1 priority is constituent service. They’re the folks that sent us here, they’re the folks that approve our contract every two years to come back for another two years.
What is your thought on Gov. Deval’s gun control package? Most of the gun legislation will come to Judiciary for our consideration, so at this point I’m trying to remain as impartial as possible because of my role as the chair. My own feeling as one legislator is—I was here in 1998 when it was the last comprehensive piece of legislation that we did involving guns. There have been some smaller pieces passed since then that tinkered around the edges of that major piece, but that legislation made Massachusetts one of the strictest states in the nation for guns, their possession and the penalties associated with illegal possession. There are things that we did in 1998 that specifically prohibit a lot of the practices that are fairly common in a lot of our sister states. So I start there and then ask: what is it that needs to be improved on the law that we did and is the reasoning behind it narrowly tailored to resulting in something that’s going to make sense for law enforcement?
As state budget planning gets underway, what are some areas in the budget you’d like to see focused on? The biggest issue that’s going to dominate the budget this year will be the governor’s tax plan, the revenues he’s asking for not only to sustain us this budget but going forward, to deal with the transportation issue, to deal with what he terms 'a crisis in education.' All of that stuff sounds great. The difficulty is mustering the consensus and getting the votes in the House to pass that.
At some point between now and April we have to reach a consensus [on how to spend and raise money], which with 160 people is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes its like herding cats. I think all of us agree we have to keep the T funded and running, and there’s only so much that folks can endure fares going up. We need to think as statesmen think, which is long term and not just about the next election. There needs to be something done to fund our transportation. I’m willing to go back to my constitutents and make that argument; we just collectively have to do the same thing and get the consensus.
The Rutherford Avenue Corridor/Sullivan Square project is kind of in limbo right now, as the Boston Transportation Department weighs the options. Is there anything that can be done on your end to help push that project along? I've been working on Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue for a decade. As a causeway into our main city, it's deplorable the condition that it’s in. I have secured funding in the bond bill for over a decade for that project, and I’m just hoping that there’s an alignment of the stars shortly and that we can move forward.
I have been deferential to the transportation experts in this, reserving my judgment and my right to step in if I feel that the nighborhood is not being represented. I think this process has played out in a very democratic way, but at some point the transportation experts are going to have to make a decision, we’re going to have to live with it, and we’re going to have to work to make sure that whatever is done benefits the neighborhood.
Now, how can you say that when there’s a lot of unforeseen consequences? I start with the basics. If you start near the Teamsters building and you’re in Sullivan Square and you look down Rutherford Ave. and you see the Leonard Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, and you see the skyscrapers, it’s a beautiful scene. And then you pull your eyesight back and you say why does the sidewalk look the way that it does, why is this blocked off, where does this tunnel go, why is that such a mess over there at the bridge leading onto Route 99 into Everett? This could be a beautiful causeway.
I am hopeful that we are close to an agreement on what the best option is. I’m hopeful that, although there are segments of the community that will be upset, undoubtedly, with whatever the final result is, that all of us can put those concerns aside and work with diligence on making sure that the causeway becomes what it should be, which is a beautiful addition to our neighborhood and a grand entrance from the north into the city of Boston.
What does it mean to have $15 million in the transportation bond bill for the Rutherford Avenue/Sullivan Square project? I have done the only thing within my jurisdiction that I can do, which is to say this is a priority and to get my language [for the project] into the transportation bond bill, which allows the state to borrow money to do projects. So now if I can convince the administration that this project is worthy, necessary and it's ready to go, they can turn around and give the authorization to borrow money for construction.
Rep. O'Flaherty holds local office hours every first and third Monday of the month and on the last Friday of the month from 11 a.m. to noon at Zume's Coffee House in Charlestown. Citizens are invited to come meet with the legislator or a member of his staff to talk about any issues of concern.