Rep. Birmingham served on a special committee that was set up to investigate car schedules, car stops, crowded conditions, and other issues with the Elevated Railway Company ('L'), the Boston Globe reported Jan. 4, 1928, p. 19.
Other members included City Councillor Edward M. Gallagher, Association President Thomas E. Kiley, Lewis L. Martinson, and Louis Sigismund.
The special committee was appointed by the Faneuil Improvement Association to investigate transit in the Brighton district. The associate held its regular meeting on Jan. 3 at the Faneuil Branch Public Library. There were 115 members present at the meeting.
At a previous association meeting, members of the public had complained about poor service, crowd conditions, and lack of car stops on the Elevated Railway transit system.
In response, the company acted to improve car stop facilities in the district and it assured the association that it planned other improvements suggested by the association.
The committee reported that it had studied conditions on various street corners and had made general observations, checking the crowds and counting the cars. The committee concluded that the situation was not as bad as it had been painted, the paper said.
Rep. Birmingham’s bill to apply Sunday observation to Armistice Day was passed by the House by a vote 104 to 100 on Feb. 6, 1929, the Boston Globe reported (Feb. 7, 1929, p. 7).
The bill was a substitute for an adverse committee report, which had recommended against applying Sunday observation to Armistice Day.
Before the vote, Birmingham spoke in favor of the bill, along with Rep. Charles Page of Boston, Rep. John Derham of Uxbridge, and Rep. Alfred Ingalls of Lynn.
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Maynard E. S. Clemons of Wakefield, Rep. Elmer Spear of Everett, Rep. Martha Brooks of Gloucester, Rep. Joseph Finnegan of Boston, and Rep. Clarence Luitwieler.
The bill was set to go to the Senate for further action.
Democratic House members held a caucus June 2 at the request of Gov. Joseph Ely to consider the Ways and Means Committee’s tax program, the Boston Globe reported (June 3, 1932, pp. 1, 17).
Rep. Birmingham read a communication from Ely to the House Democratic caucus urging it to support the committee’s tax program. However, the caucus voted not to accept the program in its entirety.
The committee’s tax program included an additional $2 poll tax, salary reductions for state and county employees, and a 10 percent supplement on income taxes.
Eli also said in the communication that if the caucus could not support the plan, it should formulate its own tax program.
The caucus then took up individual items in the committee's plan. The caucus voted down the provision for a state and county employee pay reduction, but it approved a 10 percent increase on personal income, corporation, and public utility taxes.
The caucus voted in favor of a more sweeping proposal to increase by 10 percent all taxes and license fees imposed by the state, which would automatically take in the 10 percent tax increase on the personal income, corporate, and public utility taxes.
In his communication, Ely expressed opposition to a proposal by Rep. Pratt to put a tax on stocks and bonds and other forms of intangibles. Rep. Pratt had proposed a bill that would have provided for a $20 million state bond issue to assist cities and towns in public welfare relief as a substitute for the committee’s tax plan.
The caucus appointed a committee of seven to make a report to Gov Ely about its recommendations. Committee members included Reps. Birmingham, Charles H. Slowey of Lowell, Patrick Moore of Pittsfield, John V. Mahoney of Boston, Timothy J. Cronin of Cambridge, Joseph P. White of Boston, Paul A. Dever of Cambridge, and Frank E. Rafter of Salem.
The alternative tax program proposed by the Democratic caucus included taking $2 million from the gasoline tax receipts or highway fund to provide public welfare relief to the cities and towns, imposing a 10 percent tax on the total amount of all income taxes paid, a 10 percent tax on all fees collected by the state, and an excise tax of 1 cent on every 10 cigarettes.
Rep. Birmingham opposed taking power away from the Boston City Council to grant permits, during a Jan. 22 hearing of the Legislative Committee on Legal Affairs (Boston Globe, Jan 23, 1929, p. 1, 8).
The committee was considering two bills that would take the power to grant permits for Sunday professional sports away from the City Council.
One bill, sponsored by Rep. A. B. Casson, would give the power for issuing permits to the mayor, Boston Police Commissioner, and the Chief Justice of the Municipal Court. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. George Gilman, would give the power to Boston Licensing Board with approval of the Police Commissioner.
Sen. Robert E. Bigney of South Boston spoke in opposition to the bills and commented on the so-called Sunday baseball scandal. “The chairman of the Boston Finance Commission deserves a vote of public censure for announcing the names of 12 men without any evidence to back up the charges. Such announcement branded them in the eyes of the public,” said Bigney.
Birmingham testified that he was opposed in principle to taking power from elected officials.
City Councilor Israel Ruby said: “The people, when they voted in favor of the measure, showed they desired to have the City Council make rules and regulations governing Sunday sports. It is not fair for the legislature to take away what they did not see fit to give the people at the last session. Why should Boston be discriminated against in this manner? There was no hue and cry when other communities failed to accept the act. We accepted the act,” he said.
Councilor John F. Dowd of Roxbury added that the people who voted for the referendum knew the council would issue the permits. “But now the legislature wants to step in and take away what little power is left.”
Rep. Birmingham charged that the taxicab situation could have been straightened out years ago by the police commissioner if he had wanted to, reported the Boston Herald (April 26, 1929, p. 7).
Birmingham asserted that the independent taxicab operators are insulted when they appeal to the commissioner and the only place they can go for relief is to the legislature. He said that a taxicab monopoly exists, and there is now an opportunity to end it.
The Democratic minority leader was commenting on a bill proposed by Rep. Joseph Finnegan that would abolish special or exclusive taxicab stands and make public stands free and open for all vehicles whose owners were licensed.
Finnegan’s bill was reported adversely by the House committee on cities, but Finnegan continued to fight for the bill. The House voted 158 to 46 April 25 to substitute Finnegan’s bill for the adverse committee report.
Finnegan argued that the Checker taxicab company had an unfair competitive position in having exclusive stands set aside for their taxis.
“This measure is not designed as an attack on the police commissioner. It merely says then when a taxi stand is set aside by the city it shall be opened to all licensed taxicabs, which would include special or exclusive stands in a policy of equal treatment for all. Provision is made for reasonable rules and regulations by the police commissioner,” he said during debate on the bill.
Finnegan charged that Charles Innes, a director of the Checker Taxi Company, was behind the opposition to his bill and the reason that the committee on cities issued an adverse report.
Rep. James Twohig of South Boston charged that police officials own Checker company stock and want to put the independent operators out of business.
Rep. Rupert Thompson of Newton, speaking for the committee on cities, said that a bill was passed setting up a Boston traffic commission, and the committee thought that the question of exclusive taxicab stands should be left to the commission to handle.
Rep. Richard Crockwell of Medford, chairman of the committee on cities, objected to Finnegan’s suggestion that Innes was the reason the committee reported adversely on his bill. “Mr. Innes had absolutely nothing to do with the report on this bill,” he said.
On petition of Samuel H. Borofsky and others, Rep. Birmingham filed a bill Dec. 23 that would regulate chain stores, the Springfield Republican reported (Dec. 24, 1930, p. 17).
Under the bill, individuals or corporations with more than one place of retail business would be required to serve notice of establishment of additional stores to the secretary of state and obtain licenses to do business.
The bill provided a scale of fees for licenses depending on the size of the city. A license for a town of fewer than 5,000 people would cost $750, while a license for a city of more than 500,000 people would cost $2,700.
Violators of the license provisions would be fined $100 or serve 60 days in jail, or both, for each violation. The penalties would be imposed on owners and operators.
Three-quarters of the fines collected would be given to municipalities, while one-quarter would go to the state.
Rep. Birmingham spoke in favor of holding a preliminary primary to select candidates to run for mayor of Boston, during a Feb. 18 hearing of the House committee on cities, the Boston Globe reported (Feb. 18, 1930, p. 1, 21).
The committee was considering two bills, one to hold party primaries or preferential primaries in Boston elections and the other to give the Boston mayor the power to appoint the Police Commissioner instead of the governor.
“Party responsibility should be forced on the majority party. The Democrats of Boston are willing to shoulder the responsibility. I am willing to compromise on the preferential primary, but I speak in favor of the party system. We should have had a preliminary primary last year to learn the qualities of the candidates. There was a case where we had a man campaigning four years for the office and another comes in four weeks before election. If we had a preliminary primary system there would be not more candidates and an opportunity to select the best men,” Birmingham said.
The discussion turned to whether the Police Commissioner should be appointed by the Boston mayor instead of the governor. The debate reflected the broader issue of home rule for Boston.
“I honestly believe there is as much corruption in the Police Commissioner’s office as there is in any office in this State. I’m firmly persuaded to that extent,” said Birmingham.
“Place the Commissioner under the Mayor of Boston and we have a Finance Commission to investigate him. I question what will be accomplished by an investigation conducted by the Attorney General of the Garrett case. He is a Republican. This is an election year. The Republican party is not anxious to expose too much and, of course, to my mind, when one mentions the Garrett case it really means an investigation of Commissioner Wilson. If you want any State supervision over the Police Commissioner of Boston let the Civil Service Commissioner approve him, but let the Mayor appoint him,” said Birmingham.
During a Jan. 15 hearing of the Joint Committee on Rules, Rep. Birmingham asked Police Commissioner Herbert Wilson if he thought it strange that Oliver Garrett, the deposed head of the Boston Police Department’s liquor squad, was asking for a pension while charges were pending against him, reported the Boston Globe (Jan. 16, 1930, p. 27).
“Of course I did. But whether I thought it was strange or peculiar I had no other option but to refer the application to the Board of Health and abide by the decision of the officer of that body making the examination. I merely followed the law,” Wilson replied.
Wilson explained that Garrett was first injured on Aug. 2, 1927, and then again at the Marshfield Fair on Aug. 22, 1929. Garrett apparently fell off a horse and hit his head.
Garrett filed an application for a pension on Sept. 27, 1929, and the pension was granted some time later.
“The application for a pension had to be submitted by me to the Board of Health and I was required under the law to retire the officer when the Health Board certified that he was incapacitated,” Wilson said.
Birmingham asked Garrett, “Does your head bother you?” Garrett replied, “Yes.”
Birmingham then asked “Robert J. Allen,” a mysterious witness from Washington, DC, if he would produce witnesses to substantiate Sen. Joseph Mulhern’s charges about corruption in the Boston Police Department. “Yes,” he replied.
During a hearing at the State House presided over by Gov. Joseph Ely, Rep. Birmingham conducted the case for the confirmation of Mary F. Meehan as assistant commissioner of labor and industries, reported the Boston Globe (Jan. 20, 1932, p. 1, 23).
At one point in the hearing, the governor ordered Henry J. Sullivan out of the hearing room. Sullivan had accused the “nominal member of the Democratic party on the Executive Council” of blocking the confirmation of Meehan.
Ely told Sullivan to confine his remarks to the point at issue or be asked to leave if he did not do so. Sullivan began speaking and again made reference to the Democratic member of the council, the newspaper reported.
Birmingham objected and the governor requested Sullivan sit down. Sullivan turned to leave as Birmingham began laying out his reasons for his objection, but turned to reply to Birmingham as he was almost out the door. Gov. Ely then ordered Sullivan to be escorted from the room.
The hearing room, one of the largest in the State House, was filled to overflowing for the hearing about confirmation of Meehan by the Governor’s Council. In attendance were Councilors Campbell, Cote, Chamberlain, Frazer, and Brennan.
Ely gave the opening remarks, in which he outlined the purpose of the hearing and the procedures. The governor asked if the proponents had a definite program for presenting their case.
Birmingham said that hurried arrangements had been made and would be followed as closely as possible. During the early part of the hearing, Meehan remained outside with a group of friends who were not able to find room inside the hearing room.
Birmingham recounted Meehan’s 20-year connection with various labor organizations and state Democratic councils. Meehan had been an executive dealing with the issue of women and children workers for the past 17 years.
The Brighton representative argued that Meehan’s work on behalf of organized labor should not be seen as an impediment to her confirmation. He said that there is a place on the Labor and Industries Board for a person who has had labor affiliations and is familiar with the difficulties encourned by women and children in the work place.
Birmingham then read letters of support for Meehan, including letters of support from Rev Jones I. Corrigan, S.J., of Boston College; George R. Glendining, president of the Banker and Tradesman; and Courtenay Guild of Boston.
Birmingham’s bill on power utility regulation received support from some members of the Legislative Committee on Power and Light during an April 9 hearing, the Boston Globe reported (April 10, 1930, p. 18).
Birmingham, who was the minority member of a special commission on public utility control, introduced a bill that would eliminate reproduction value as a rate base. The bill would prohibit power companies from using the reproduction value theory, which they had relied on in court appeals to rate reductions.
Birmingham’s bill would require a power company to enter into a contract to abide by the Massachusetts investment value basis of rate making. The company would have to sign the contract in order to receive protection against competition from a municipal lighting plant, the newspaper explained.
If a company refused to ink the contract, it would have no redress should a local community set up its own lighting department without buying out the private company, according to the bill.
Birmingham was also seeking a resolution memorializing Congress to “prevent action by the Federal courts in all cases in respect to public utilities in which local judicial authorities and local regulatory agencies are empowered to prevent the abuse of exorbitant or confiscatory rates by a local public utility until the highest court of the States has passed thereon.”
Birmingham refused to argue for his bills during the hearing unless he was permitted to have them printed and presented to the legislature.
Majority Bill Would Also Eliminate Reproduction Value
The conservative majority on the commission also drafted a bill that would eliminate reproduction value as a factor in setting the price which a municipality would have to pay to a private company for the plant before it could set up its own public lighting department. Instead, the Massachusetts traditional fair investment value would be used to calculate the price. However, the majority bill would not touch the basis of valuation for rate making.
The commission majority’s counsel, Arthur D. Hill, testified that reproduction value is a “fictitious value” because it is the cost of “rebuilding something that nobody would rebuild because it is obsolete,” the newspaper reported.
Hill argued that use of the theory in court results in a constant threat of costly litigation because it is difficult to apply. He supported the idea of having the Public Utilities Commission be the arbiter of the price the community would pay for the plant. The commission should use the basis of the plant’s cost less its depreciation for the plant’s value.
The newspaper said that the committee would hold more hearings on the commission’s work on April 17, 1930.
The previous day, April 8, the committee held hearings on the regulation of power companies. Birmingham argued that the holding companies of the power companies should be regulated in order to secure fair power rates, the Globe reported (April 9, 1930, p. 8). He submitted separate bills on behalf of the committee’s minority members to include holding companies under regulation of the Public Utilities Department and to prohibit additional mergers of the eight large power companies in the state.
Birmingham noted that the commission was initially set up become of the attempt by International Power to buy the Boston Herald-Traveler. The commission was unable to find the final control of this power interest, he said.
Birmingham said that encroachment by outside holding companies up the local power field had been going on for years without any warnings from the Public Utilities Department. Only the purchase of the Herald aroused the public and prevented complete monopoly of the power interest in the state. Such a monopoly will prevail unless the state regulates holding companies and forbids further mergers, he said.
The bills introduced by the commission’s majority members would give the Public Utilities Department the authority to supervise contracts between utilities and the holding companies that control them, but would not regulate the holding companies directly. The bills would also require the holding companies to provider certain information that would enable more adequate regulation of the operating companies.
Birmingham wanted to know why his bills were not separately printed. The majority commission’s counsel, Arthur Hill, said that Birmingham’s bills and the minority report would not have been printed without him paying for it out of his own pocket. Birmingham said he would reimburse Hill if the legislature did not.
At a May 13 hearing, the Committee on Power and Light approved the commission majority's bill that would extend the law authorizing cities and towns to purchase and operate power plants, the Globe reported (May 14, 1930, p. 28). The bill was amended in committee to give power companies the right to appeal a decision by the Department of Public Utilities on the price to be paid by the municipality to buy a privately owned power plant.
The committee decided that "no legislation necessary" regarding Birmingham's minority report and proposed measures.