EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Boston and Beyond

December 30, 2012

Lawmakers face budget, drug lab questions

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Patrick has not yet specified how he would seek to pay for such repairs, but Michael Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, believes there is little other choice but to raise the state’s gasoline tax of 21 cents per gallon.

“There really is no alternative to the gas tax in the short term when you are talking about several hundred million dollars of additional transportation revenues,” said Widmer.

The gas tax hasn’t changed in more than two decades and an attempt by Patrick to raise it during his first term went nowhere in the Legislature. It’s unclear whether sentiments have changed since.

Another item near the top of the Legislature’s to-do list is the governors’ request for $30 million to address the drug lab crisis, blamed on a rogue chemist who allegedly manipulated drug samples over nine years at the now-shuttered Department of Public Health lab.

The administration has proposed diverting money from the rainy day fund to cover initial costs incurred by courts, district attorneys, public defenders and other agencies dealing with fallout from the scandal as thousands of criminal cases are reviewed.

Officials acknowledge that $30 million might only be a starting point when it comes to costs, and a larger question facing lawmakers may be how to prevent similar crises. Legislative hearings in recent weeks examined lapses in oversight by public health managers that critics believe contributed to the drug lab crisis.

Similar questions await lawmakers in response to the fungal meningitis outbreak in the U.S. that has claimed nearly 40 lives. Framingham-based New England Compounding Center, the firm that distributed the steroid blamed in the deaths, was regulated by the state Board of Pharmacy, which also falls under the public health department. Documents show the company had avoided punitive action from the board despite concerns raised about sterility and other matters.

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