School-kids steamroll pols on Beacon Hill

Do you think we need an official state color? If certain Bay State schoolkids named Amber, Ashley, Brittany, and Brianna have their way, it won’t be long before we have three!

Rep. Brian Knuuttila of Gardner has filed legislation to make blue, green, and cranberry the “official colors of the Commonwealth.” He did it on behalf of the fifth grade at Gardner’s Elm Street School. Blue was chosen for the Atlantic Ocean, green for the fields of western Massachusetts. Cranberry is a native fruit and one of the state’s largest cash crops, not to mention a stunning hue for a sweater.

JAMES FAGERQUIST

Those are perfectly nice colors, even though, in these tough budgetary times, some might argue that the official state color should be red. But the kids in Gardner shouldn’t get their hopes up. Bills to create “official state emblems” are filed every year; most of them are put in a “study” and killed in committee.

Still, every year one or two make their way through the Legislature and end up before the governor. One of Jane Swift’s final acts as acting governor made “Boston cream” the official state doughnut. Hours before Mitt Romney was sworn in to replace her, Swift signed Chapter 500 of the Acts of 2002, codifying Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings as the official state children’s book and Dr. Seuss as the official state children’s author and illustrator. This probably made a lot of sense to the first chief executive in the nation to give birth while in office.

But Swift wasn’t the first governor to expand the list of “Arms and Emblems of the Commonwealth.” We also have an official state polka (“Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts”), thanks to Paul Cellucci. The legacy of William Weld includes an official bean (the navy bean), berry (the cranberry, of course), dessert (Boston cream pie), cookie (chocolate chip), and folk hero (Johnny Appleseed). Michael Dukakis gave us an official state soil (Paxton), muffin (corn), and cat (tabby).

High schoolers conduct mock legislative sessions to learn about state government, but their elementary school counterparts try to push dumb laws through the real Legislature. Most teachers never consider the bad laws already on the books. Working to repeal one of those would provide an equally valuable lesson in “how a bill becomes a law.”

Instead, Gov. Romney may have the opportunity to make “six” the official state number–based on the coincidence that we’re both the sixth state to enter the union and the sixth smallest state in the nation, as well as the birthplace of the sixth US president (John Quincy Adams). And he may have to decide whether the “Great Spangled Fritillary” should be the official state butterfly. Or he could veto both measures and give Maynard third-graders and the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts a real lesson in the legislative process.

But does Romney have the guts to do so? Will he explain to the kids that not every bill, no matter how warm and fuzzy it may be, gets signed into law?

Or would that just give the Democratic Legislature an incentive to override the veto and cite the governor’s snubbing of the grade schoolers as an example of Republican cold-heartedness? That, too, could be a political learning experience.

Perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate that the Legislature has been too busy to decide whether Natick should be designated in statute, as well as slogan, the “Home of Champions” and Brockton the “City of Champions.”

Amid efforts to plug this year’s $3 billion budget shortfall and address next year’s $1 billion gap, the House and Senate have been hard at work passing a transportation bond issue that will cost $1 billion. They’ve also expanded the Prescription Advantage program for seniors, tightened drunk-driving laws, and further clarified the sex offender registry.

But they’ve also convinced Gov. Romney to sign a bunch of bills you never thought you’d need–and may be better off not knowing about. Some are simply feel-good laws. One creates a “United We Stand” license plate and another makes September 11 “Unity Day.” It’s a safe bet that nobody reread Profiles in Courage before those votes were taken.

There was a bill naming a bocce court in the North End.

Others are absurdly narrow in focus, in part because cities and towns in Massachusetts can’t do much of anything without having home-rule petitions approved by the Legislature. This year, for instance, there was a bill naming a bocce court in Boston’s North End in honor of Guido Salvucci. And was it really the best use of legislators’ time to put through a bill allowing the Moby Dick Boy Scout Council to merge with the Narrangansett Council?

How about the laws dedicating–or in some cases rededicating–a bridge in Billerica, a field in Lowell, another bridge in “the City known as the Town of Methuen,” and the town square in Webster?

The debate to allow Sunday liquor sales got a lot of publicity, but did you know that bills granting individual liquor licenses in Middleboro, Maynard, Milton, and Topsfield (twice) were signed into law by our teetotaling governor?

What about the bill allowing the town of Sunderland to conduct part of its annual town meeting in Deerfield? Was that legislation integral to the day-to-day operation of the state?

Maybe, maybe not.

Should we count ourselves lucky that, as of this writing, the number six hasn’t been designated the official state number; that blue, green, and cranberry haven’t been made the official state colors; and that the Great Spangled Fritillary hasn’t become the official state butterfly?

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Yes.

But don’t applaud yet. We’re only halfway through the 183rd biennial session of the Great and General Court. There are thousands of bills still making their way through the legislative process. And so many emblems to be designated.

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.