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Melanie’s Bill backers fuming
Deride watered-down version as ‘backroom deal’
BOSTON - As House and Senate leaders congratulated themselves on reaching a compromise on Melanie’s Bill, supporters of tougher drunken driving laws tore into them for eliminating some key provisions.
“Just when I think things are on the level on Beacon Hill, this happens,” Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, fumed.
“This is rotten. It’s dirty pool. It ended up being a backroom deal.”
Ed Melia of Quincy, who lost a great-granddaughter in an August accident involving a repeat drunken driver, also was incensed.
“The perception that criminal defense lawyers in the Legislature will not vote for tougher drunk driving laws is now reality,” Melia said. “They don’t want to lose the tools that make their job easy.”
The House and Senate last month approved conflicting versions of the bill, which is named for 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield. She was killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2003.
The House yesterday passed the new bill on a 114 to 22 vote. The only opposition on the South Shore came from three Republican representatives who wanted the stronger provisions retained.
Critics of the original House bill said it had been watered down to the point they could not support it.
The compromise was hammered out yesterday during a full day of closed-door State House meetings. The Senate was expected to approve it today.
“If politics is the art of compromise, then there is no finer an example than the work of the conference committee in reaching agreement on Melanie’s Bill,” Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Sal DiMasi said in a prepared statement.
“With the passage of this bill we send a clear message that the commonwealth will no longer tolerate this threat on our highways.”
Melanie Powell’s grandfather, Ron Bersani of Marshfield, said he isn’t sure if his family will continue to support the bill now that it has been “gutted.”
“We missed a unique opportunity,” said Bersani, a leader of the campaign to pass the measure.
“I don’t think we have ever seen the level of disgust (with repeat drunken drivers) and the level of public interest in a bill that we’ve seen in this one,” he said
The new bill includes new minimum mandatory sentences, requires ignition locks for repeat drunken drivers and mandates alcohol treatment for drivers with a blood alcohol content of .20 percent or greater.
But other, key provisions were stripped from the final bill. The new version does not:
And while the bill establishes the crime of manslaughter by motor vehicle, it sets the maximum sentence at 2 1/2- years, rather than the five years sought in the original bill.
The Romney administration, which filed a more far-reaching version of the bill in May, had no immediate comment.
If the bill is passed in the Senate, Romney’s options include restoring some of the bill’s provisions and returning it to the Legislature for further consideration.
Committee never met
A six-member conference committee appointed to iron out differences between competing House and Senate versions of the bill never met.
Despite a legislative rule that the committee meet in public, the compromise was reached during private conversations among the four Democratic members of the committee - Sens. Robert Creedon of Brockton and Steven Baddour of Methuen, and Reps. Eugene O’Flaherty of Chelsea and Michael Costello of Newburyport.
The two Republican members of the conference committee - Hedlund and Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Hanson - were not included in discussions leading up to the release of the compromise version.
Webster opposed the newly drafted bill, saying it failed on two points - by not allowing prosecutors to use court records to prove prior convictions, and by not increasing penalties for refusing to take a Breathalyzer.
“The best way to target a repeat offender is to be able to stand up in court when you’re a prosecutor and to prove that someone had been convicted of drunk driving for a second, fourth or subsequent time,” Webster said.
But Rep. Stephen Tobin, D-Quincy, said the bill includes many get-tough provisions, including a three-year loss of license for someone who already has a drunken driving conviction and subsequently refuses to take a breath test.
“There’s a lot of provisions in here that I think protect the public,” Tobin said.
Rep. James Fagan, a Taunton Democrat who defends drunken drivers in his law practice, opposed the compromise version of the bill. He called it “a media-driven piece of legislation fanned by a tragedy that affects not only one family but many families.”
Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat and a strong supporter of Melanie’s Bill, voted for the compromise version even though he wanted a stronger bill.
“I listened to those who say we should be proud of this bill,” Hynes said. “Each of us must make our judgment. I am not proud of what we did a few weeks ago. I am not particularly proud tonight. I think we can do better.
“If we do not seize this modest step in improving the laws and the penalties for those who irresponsibly drive drunk repeatedly, we will not have another chance,” Hynes said. “This will die.”
Barbara Harrington, a lobbyists for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the new version of the bill is far inferior to earlier versions.
“It doesn’t appear to be what we need,” Harrington said. “A lot of business as usual, with some improvements.”
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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