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‘This is not Melanie’s bill’
Advocates say House has removed much of the legislation’s bite
The Patriot Ledger
Advocates of a sweeping bill that would crack down on repeat drunken-driving offenders say the version debated by lawmakers today is so watered down it doesn’t deserve to be named for Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old victim from Marshfield.
“This is not Melanie’s bill,” said Ron Bersani, the grandfather of the girl whose 2003 death helped inspire the bill. “This is not even a pale facsimile of the original bill. They can call it what they want to, but we call it business as usual at the State House. This is not what we were promised.”
The current version was quietly forwarded this week by House members of the judiciary committee. Though it toughens sentences for repeat drunken drivers, requires alcohol assessment and counseling, and contains other provisions included in the original bill proposed by Gov. Mitt Romney, Bersani said it has been stripped of its “meat and potatoes.”
Provisions whittled from Melanie’s bill include:
State Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield, planned to offer amendments today to restore some of the original provisions.
“My initial reaction (to the new version) is one of disappointment because I don’t think it represents the true intent of Melanie’s bill, which was to give to the general citizenry a more positive sense of security and safety when they’re on the roadways,” Hynes said.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill tomorrow, and at least some members have said they, too, plan to file amendments that would restore stricken parts of the bill.
If the two chambers approve different versions, they would be sent to a conference committee to reconcile the differences.
Lawmakers are rushing to pass some version this week because Massachusetts faces a Saturday deadline to meet stricter federal standards or lose $9 million in transportation funds.
Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey said the new draft still falls short of the federal requirement, in part because it doesn’t require that repeat drunken drivers’ cars be equipped with the onboard breath tests, or ignition locking devices.
She said Romney would be unlikely to sign the House bill if it passes in its current form.
“I think we would have to return it with significant amendments,” Healey said, adding that there has been an effort among some legislators to “completely undermine the intent of the legislation, which is to strengthen drunk-driving laws.”
A call to the Judiciary Committee office was not returned, and Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat who is vice chairman of the committee, could not be reached last night.
Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Hanson, another member of the judiciary committee, said he was not involved in the redrafting and had not seen the new version.
The revisions were not unexpected.
Judiciary committee co-chairman Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, had recently questioned whether some provisions of the law would stand up in court, including the harsher penalties for refusing a field sobriety test.
His co-chairman, Sen. Robert Creedon, D-Brockon, also has been critical of some of the harsher measures.
But in a letter last week to O’Flaherty and Creedon, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said he believed the original bill would not only pass muster, but was appropriate.
“It represents a focused, measured and constitutional response to the problem of repeat-offender drunk drivers,” Cruz wrote. “In my opinion, and those of my colleagues with whom I have discussed the issue, the provisions of Melanie’s bill will certainly pass constitutional muster, should they be enacted and therefore challenged.”
Ed Melia of Quincy, whose pregnant granddaughter lost her baby after her car was struck by a repeat drunken driver, hopes lawmakers agree. He views Melanie’s bill as an opportunity to prevent other families from enduring what his did.
“I just hope this a joke, what the redraft is, because it can’t be anything else,” he said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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