BOSTON — Despite having more than a week to review a House offer for compromise on a sweeping crime and sentencing reform package, state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and the two other senators negotiating the deal are still working on a counteroffer that is likely to differ significantly from the House.
"We're close," said Tarr, the Gloucester Republican who has taken a lead role on many aspects of the bill, including those that add tougher sanctions for repeat offenders. "We're not necessarily close with the House proposal, but we are coming closer in terms of our own proposal."
He said the counteroffer would likely be ready in time for the next conference committee meeting scheduled for this week.
The six-member overall conference committee met Thursday morning, 11 days after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty presented a proposal that severely narrowed the list of crimes that would result in an automatic maximum sentence for three-time repeat offenders.
The House offer also proposes shrinking from 1,000 feet to 100 the zone around schools in which drug crimes carry a mandatory minimum sentence, would ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, and would eliminate a provision backed by the Senate to expand the wiretapping power of state police.
The Senate conferees — Tarr, Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, and Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen — met prior to the full conference committee meeting to discuss their priorities for the bill, on which even those three are still far apart on certain issues.
O'Flaherty, who has been on the defensive after a Boston Globe columnist harshly criticized the Chelsea Democrat for his opposition to a separate bill lifting the statute of limitation on child sex crimes, brought a bouquet of flowers to the meeting for Creem, thanking her for supportive comments made to the News Service earlier in the week.
O'Flaherty also gave Blow Pop lollipops to Baddour and Tarr.
"I've been known to take my licks from Chairman O'Flaherty before so this wasn't the first time and won't be the last. I just hope he doesn't take me for a sucker in these negotiations," Tarr said.
Though school zones were not discussed, the issue has emerged as a potential sticking point between the House and Senate as well as among the Senate conferees themselves.
The Senate version of the bill would reduce the school zone from 1,000 to 500 feet, though Creem said, "I'm not sure the House's 100 is a bad way to go." Her colleagues from the Senate — Baddour and Tarr — disagree.
"I don't think the Senate will be there. I don't support 100 feet. I support what the Senate did," Baddour told the News Service. "If the House moves our way on some of the tougher prosecutorial measures maybe that's something we can talk about. We need to have that give and take."
Tarr, like Baddour, supports keeping the wiretapping expansion in the final bill, and said he can't understand why anyone would want to shrink school zones further.
"I can't speak for my colleagues, but I personally can't understand the reason that we'd want to reduce the protection around a school zone from predators selling drugs," Tarr said.
The Senate Republican also defended the wiretapping provision, which has been supported by Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"I don't think that piece is as sweeping as perhaps some folks are fearful of," Tarr said, "and I think it's a valuable tool and when done with appropriate safeguards can protect folks' civil rights but also make sure we have effective prosecutions. I think it dovetails very nicely with what we're trying to do with some very violent people who have the potential to hurt other people in Massachusetts."
After openly worrying last week that the conference committee was like a "truck stuck in the mud," state Rep. Brad Hill — the Ipswich Republican whose district also includes the town of Manchester, said he saw a good dialogue during the meeting and was optimistic that progress was being made.
"My fears have been alleviated a little bit since the last meeting," Hill said. "It's good to see a conversation taking place, and both Chairwoman Creem and Chairman O'Flaherty indicated they want to get this done."