What are People Talking About?

Committee chairs have been named, and members of the House have been assigned to committees. Now, what?

Well, there’s some complaining from Representatives who didn’t get the leadership posts or committees they asked for. There are rumors that some members will be quitting the job, and going back to the private sector.

But, basically, business isn’t being formally conducted. The House this week, for example, met twice, but in informal sessions where nothing is done except acceptance of bills, introduction of guests like hockey teams and beauty queens, approval of citations honoring people or groups. No votes, nothing controversial.

Constituent service, however, keeps us busy. This week, we’ve taken calls from constituents with problems ranging from the registry of motor vehicles to the cost of natural gas.

Gas. If you can’t pay the bills when they come in, be sure to call the Westfield Gas and Electric Light Department. You might qualify for fuel assistance. Or, at the very least, you can make payment arrangements.

Also, the State has an 800 number for heating assistance (800/632-8175) in its Department of Housing and Community Development. They have information on fuel assistance, weatherization, and can answer other energy questions. You can also get information on the internet at state.ma.us/DHCD or state.ma.us/winterheating.

If you have oil heat and need help, try 877/JOE-4-OIL. You might qualify for a one-time delivery of fuel oil at a reduced price.

Where, you may ask, does our natural gas come from? Believe it or not, Massachusetts gas customers get their gas not only from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, but also from Canada and Nova Scotia. Liquefied natural gas is also delivered to the Port of Boston from Algerian facilities on the Mediterranean, Caribbean plants in Trinidad and Tobago, and even Australia.

Price is based on supply and demand, just like most every other product. After two mild winters, there was an abundant supply, so prices were low. With demand low, production slackened off. Then, the supplies available fell sharply, so now we face shortages and higher prices.

Our utility departments have to buy natural gas at the going rates, higher now, and pass the costs on to you.

According to the state’s Energy Department, economic theory suggests that higher prices will, over time, elicit more supplies and a consequent moderation in price. But we won’t feel that until later this year.

I could tell you more, but your eyes would glaze over and you’d stop reading, so I’ll change the subject.

In the State House, Representatives are also eagerly awaiting the final census numbers. We know that Massachusetts has grown since the last census. But the increase was small, going from 6,016,425 to 6,349,097. If you add military and federal employees stationed outside the country and any dependents, the total is 6,355,568.

Why is that important to Representatives and Senators? Because we’re looking at redistricting. Dividing up the state into 160 equal pieces so that each of us has about the same number of people. To be exact, 39,722 persons.

Gerrymandering is the problem. If the Redistricting Committee wants to change a district, say, to remove a Republican representative and make it likelier for a Democrat to win, they can cut a district up into a new shape.

Or, take my district. Westfield, with 38,000 and Montgomery with about 750 people. If Westfield increases to 40,000, the redistricting committee could leave my district as it is; eliminate Montgomery and award it to one of the Representatives in the hilltowns; or chop Westfield into smaller pieces with more than one Representative for the city. The Redistricting Committee, if I’ve made a lot of enemies among them, could even move my own precinct out of the district.

We’re also starting to see a trickle of lobbyists coming around to give us their agendas for the year. The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was among the first to try to see everyone.

Frankly, it’s rather entertaining to see some lobbyists suddenly having to deal with new committee chairs and members, instead of their old favorites.

Committees are starting to organize, in order to be ready for bills when they get assigned. They have to adopt by-laws and set committee procedures. Will people here to testify be limited to two minutes or get unlimited time? Will we allow polling of members who aren’t present in person when matters come to a vote or require attendance? Just a couple of the things to decide.

And, there’s some fun, too. Like Shellfish Day, with a raw bar in the Great Hall. It’s this coming Wednesday and I’ll be there to share an oyster or two with a shellfish constable.

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