Lowell on Beacon Hill and the Transportation Bond Bill

Lowell’s “delegation to Beacon Hill,” our three state representatives and senator, have received a fair amount of attention in the previous months. Kevin Murphy recently became Lowell’s next city manager. Meanwhile, a state Transportation Bond including about $26 million “earmarked” for Lowell projects is making its way through the lawmaking process. Elsewhere in the state house, UTEC continues to advocate for allowing a Vote 17 referendum in Lowell.

When I decided to write about these politicians and their job in Beacon Hill, I realized I understood a lot less than I thought I did. Although many know the basic process of how a bill becomes a law, the intricacies are less clear. DJ Corcoran, who worked in the Massachusetts from 1992 until he took a job as Director of Government Relations at UMass Lowell in 2012, explained the process and a few of the secrets of Lowell’s success.

A bill becomes a law in three paragraphs

A man shaped like a hammer with a powdered wig signs a bill into law.

Luckily, our representatives do not look like the illustrations in Massachusetts’ primer here.

The state legislature (called the “General Court” in Massachusetts) is much like, but not identical to, the US Congress. A simple explanation of the lawmaking process is that a senator, representative, or Governor develops an idea for a bill. That person has his or her staff craft language for a bill and files a petition with the senate or the house. There, the bill will be referred to a bipartisan committee with specialized knowledge of economics, transportation, or other issues.

The committee may hold public hearings [1], where the public and outside experts offer testimony related to the bill. The committee may refer it to a different committee, may report favorably on it, or may end it there. Usually a bill has to go through three committees before being debated, amended, and voted upon in the house or senate.

The bill then has to go through the entire process again in the other branch. If the other branch amends the bill, a bipartisan conference committee crafts a compromise bill. That bill is sent to both branches for a final, unamendable vote. The Governor can veto or recommend amendments to the bill, and this can be overridden with a two-thirds vote from both branches.

One example: Transportation Bond Bill

The Transportation Bond Bill is a compelling example of this process. Newspaper stories about the bond bill often gave the impression that, once passed, the bill would direct the state to borrow billions to be directed at certain projects. In actuality, the bill only gives permission for borrowing. It is up to the administration led by the Governor to create a capital plan within the limits established by the bill.

The process started early last year with Governor Patrick filing a petition for the bill. The bill’s primary purpose was to authorize Massachusetts to borrow and provide discretionary funds for various state agencies and local (Chapter 90) aid. It included some funding to be used specifically for the South Coast Rail project, the Green Line Extension, and South Station project. This bill led to a debate last May between the legislative branches and administration and ultimately a stopgap measure.

The process of resolving that bill last winter was, by reports, much quieter [2]. It was referred to three committees, the Joint Transportation, the House Bonding, and finally the House Ways and Means, before being amended by the House and passing unanimously. Each committee altered the bill slightly:

The chair of the Joint Transportation Committee asked members of the committee to submit priority and/or shovel-ready projects (earmarks) to include in an amendment. The result was a bill (H3763) authorizing about $12.4 billion and including many smaller projects throughout Massachusetts. It was reported favorably and recommended ought to pass.

House Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets held public hearings on the bill. It recommended a version of the bill that authorized $12.5 billion (H3836) ought to pass.

The House Ways and Means Committee added additional earmarks to the bill (H3860), now totaling $12.6 billion. This was recommended ought to pass and the version that actually went to vote.

Third Reading and Vote: Dozens of representatives had amendments for projects in their districts. The chair of the Ways and Means committee worked with the representatives and staff to include all amendments in one package so that the house would not need to vote on each individually. This bill (H3882), as amended and finally totally $12.7 billion, passed unanimously.

The final packaged amendment included several projects from Representatives Golden and Nangle: $25 million for the Lowell Trolley expansion, $90,000 for an enclosed pedestrian walkway at Gallagher terminal, and $5 million for Chelmsford center. As far as I know, the representatives have not publicly stated why they prioritized these projects over others. I have heard that all three representatives first discussed possible amendments among themselves.

The Bill went through a similar process in the Senate and was unanimously passed last month. The Senate’s Ways and Means committee removed the earmark for the VFW bridge feasibility study but included $5 million for Rourke Bridge and $4 million for improvements to the Lowell Connector and Tanner Street related to the Ayer’s City plan. Senator Donoghue successfully submitted an amendment to re-include the Trolley expansion project. The total authorized for bonding in the senate version is around $13 billion.

What’s next?

The senate and house selected three members each for a bipartisan joint committee that will create a compromise bill that cannot be amended. Once passed, this bill will authorize the State to borrow money for the purposes listed in the bill for the next five years. Whether or not the State borrows and spends the money is ultimately up to the administrative branch of government, who creates a capital plan.

Are the earmarks simply “pork” partially intended to play well in reelection campaigns? Mr. Corcoran suggested that the delegation would argue they are an important planning tool to set priorities for the administration. The governor may change—perhaps more than once—during the five years the bond bill covers. The earmarks lock the administration into what the legislature considers priority projects. Of course, there are still bonds in the bill that agencies may spend flexibly.

Where’s the power?

As you might suspect, the process is not so straightforward.

First of all, the system itself gives certain members of legislature more power than others. A great deal of this power is in committees, specifically in the chairs of committees, appointed by the Senate president and Speaker of the House. They decide whether the legislature will vote upon bills and what is in the initial text of those bills.

Most committees are “joint,” including both representatives and senators. However, the greatest exception is each branch’s Ways and Means Committee, which deal with financial matters. Because the highest-profile bills often deal with financial matters, the chair of each Ways and Means Committee has a large amount of latitude in determining which bills make it to the legislature floor. [3]

This is why pundits often consider the most successful congresspeople those who can “horse trade” the best. For example, a chair of a powerful committee may move a bill forward for a member, who in turn will vote on an important piece of legislation.

Mr. Corcoran suggested another way Lowell politicians have had success in the Massachusetts legislature: Lowell has consistently been able to present a unified front to the state. As the Sun’s column blog described Lowell’s three representatives:

If there’s an a big state announcement to be made in Lowell, these guys will make it, collectively. They comprise a pack, and they’re proud of it.

The City Council passes resolutions supporting issues as varied as Vote 17, the Route 3 Extension, or the Hamilton Canal District, the entire state delegation lobbies for the issues, and the 3rd district US Representative may also voice support for projects. Following this, congressional leaders will see the issue as relatively noncontroversial and see the advantage in gaining the favor of many parties.

In 2008, the delegation was put in the position of defending the earmark for the JAM plan implementation. Although the delegation had secured a recurring half-a-million earmark for nearly a decade, budget committee members had doubts stemming from Lowell’s delays in applying for that money in the previous two years. Former City Manager Bernie Lynch said, “We absolutely need the money, and you can’t say enough about what the delegation has done to get that money.” [4]

Notably, this is often how voters grade state politicians: whether they can cooperate to secure funding for local projects. It is notable that I more easily found news related to funding specific projects than to state policy when searching for information on the delegation. In that spirit, we’re providing a short description for each delegation member. It’s important to note that each description includes a few highlights, but is almost certainly an incomplete picture of the member. We hope to explore the delegation members more as election season approaches, regardless of whether they are facing opposition. In the meantime, check out votesmart.org, where you can search for politicians, including our state delegation, by name. The page for each candidate includes biographical details, their position on key votes, and ratings from interest groups.


1st Middlesex: Eileen Donoghue

Eileen DonoghueEileen Donaghue is currently the “freshest” member of the delegation, serving as Senator since 2010. Prior to this, she served on Lowell’s city council from 1996 to 2008, and as Mayor from 1998 to 2002, championing Tsongas Arena, LaLacheur Park, and artist overlay district. She ran for Lowell’s United States House of Representatives seat, losing the primary to Niki Tsongas by only 4%. She is a JD and an attorney at Gallagher & Cavanaugh.

She has specialized in economic development matters, currently chairperson of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. She is also Vice Chair of the Committee on Higher Education and member of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies; Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy; Ways and Means; and Post Audit and Oversight committees. Notably, Senator Senator Donoghue recently sponsored a bill to examine the costs and benefits of a Boston Summer Olympics. She has also focused on reducing student debt and assisting small businesses.


16th Middlesex: Thomas Golden

Tom GoldenThomas Golden, Jr. has represented the 16th district since 1994. He is also chair of the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau and a board member of Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council. He has a BS in Business Administration and is a practicing Realtor. His cousin, Dan Rourke, was elected in 2013 as a Lowell City Councilor.

Tom Golden has a reputation for being responsive to constituent outreach. Among other priorities, he has championed substance abuse and mental health services and grants for open space. He is Vice Chair of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets; and serves on the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy and Post Audit and Oversight committees.

17th Middlesex: David Nangle

David NangleDavid M. Nangle has been a representative since 1999, when he beat Bill Martin, Stephen Geary, Rita Mercier, and others in the Democratic primary. Prior to this, he worked for Senator Steven Panagiotakos, and he also serves on the Greater Lowell Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors. Previous to this, he worked for Senator Steven Panagiotakos.

Last year, Representative Nangle endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s republican challenger, Scott Brown, saying “They’re good parents, a good family,” and citing his belief Brown could work bipartisanly. He is Vice Chair of the House’s Ethics committee, and earlier in 2014 he was acting chair when the committee recommended expulsion of Representative Carlos Henriquez. Representative Nangle is also member on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and Steering, Policy and Scheduling committees.

18th Middlesex: Vacant

Kevin MurphyCurrently, Massachusetts’ 18th Middlesex district is vacant, as Kevin Murphy recently became Lowell’s City Manager. Mr. Murphy, a JD, was a representative since 1997 and a practicing lawyer until he took the City Manager position.

Many criticized Mr. Murphy because his law firm has represented unions in negotiations with public entities, creating an apparent conflict of interest. In fact, when his firm represented four school administrators including his wife, the Massachusetts Republican party filed an unsuccessful 2009 ethics complaint with the State’s ethics commission. Reflecting upon Mr. Murphy’s representation of the bus drivers’ union, LRTA Director Jim Scanlan said:

I would say that it is an unusual or awkward situation to have a state representative representing the union and at the same time being a state rep… It has created an uncomfortable situation between the LRTA, myself and Kevin Murphy.[5]

However, the Ethics commission clearly stated it saw no ethics violation, and Mr. Murphy has generally enjoyed support from his constituents. He has served on healthcare, financial, judiciary, and social service committees and most recently, the House’s Ways and Means committee. Notably, he has been a critic of the Patrick Administration, saying, “I waited 12 years to get a Democratic governor and he’s gone against all his campaign promises.” He cited a veto of open space funding for Lowell, among other issues.[6]

Election Season Approaching

It’s quite notable that there’s often little opposition for incumbents in Lowell. Members of Lowell’s delegation may have faced close primaries and elections to get into office, but afterward, have no or only minimal opposition. This may be a statement of overall satisfaction with the delegation, it may be an acknowledgement of the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, or it may have some other cause.

It’s also notable that exploring campaign contributions, the same players often support the entire delegation. For example, Trinity Ambulance has been a major contributor to all four members’ campaigns in earlier years. Influenceexplorer.com has details for each delegation member, searchable by name. I’m not sure what this means for candidates who often run unopposed. These will be exciting questions to explore as Lowell approaches election season, especially with an empty seat to watch!


[1] The committee does not choose who will testify at a hearing. Much like at City Hall, anybody can come to testify. This means that a number of bills will only attract the testimony of those who have a direct stake in the bill, or experts hired by parties affected by the bill. Mr. Corcoran used the example of a law involving the licensing of optometrists and ophthalmologists. Each “side” testified, as few understand the particulars of the field. However, disinterested experts who could comment on the larger picture may not have attended.

[2] See State House News Service via Nashoba Publishing.

[3] Notably, even though joint committees include both senators and representatives, they have two representatives for every senate member. This gives representatives additional power in such matters as choosing the committee’s staff.

[4] Discussing the individual projects and initiatives is outside the scope of this post. The quote is from Lowell Sun, April 1, 2008.

[5] Quote is from Lowell Sun, June 30, 2009.

[6] See the Column Blog’s story, “Murphy Explains Teeing-Off on Patrick”