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.
Rep. Birmingham proposed a cigarette tax to raise revenue for the old-age assistance act enacted the previous year, the Boston Herald reported May 8, 1931, pp. 1, 15.
In the spring of 1931, the legislature was considering ways to pay for the old-age assistance act.
In a May 6 speech in Worcester, Gov. Joseph Ely attacked the Boston Herald for suggesting that he supported the idea of a cigarette tax.
Rep. Horace T. Cahill, a Republican representative from Braintree, alleged that Ely actually supported the tax in his speech, despite the governor’s criticism of the newspaper.
Cahill quoted a part of Ely’s speech, which appeared to support the idea of a cigarette tax: “It has been proposed that a tax be placed on cigarettes and tobacco, but the man who manufactures and sells tobacco and even those of us who smoke it rather resent, for what reason I do not understand, the imposition of a tax upon this article of unnecessary consumption.”
The House ways and means committee was considering means to raise revenue to implement old-age assistance act. The committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the cigarette tax proposal the following week.
Ely ignited a storm of protests during his Worcester speech when he charged that the old-age assistance act was a Republican ploy to get Gov. Frank Allen re-elected.
Rep. John V. Mahoney, a Democratic representative from Boston, criticized the governor for his remarks.
“I object strenuously to Gov. Ely’s procedure in calling the old-age assistance act a Republican measure. None worked harder for its success than I did and no one ever has found my record tainted with Republicanism….I resent the Governor’s action in attempting to rob us of the credit which is due all the Democrats who voted for it.”
Cahill asserted that the old-age assistance act was a “Democratic baby.”
“In one form or another, it has had the support of Mr. Ely’s party ever since most of these now serving in the Legislature can remember. Year after year the Democrats have gone up to the State House with it.”
On a separate issue, Birmingham carried the protests of his Democratic colleagues to Ely over his remarks that he was considering vetoing a bill to abolish physical exams for the classified civil service labor lists in cities, the newspaper reported.
Birmingham also conveyed to the governor the threat that a veto would be overridden by the legislature.
A meeting of Democratic legislators, presided over by Rep. Birmingham, decided to set up a steering committee to work with newly elected Gov. Joseph Ely, the Boston Herald reported Jan. 23, 1931, p. 30.
The committee would consist of 15 House members and 4 senators, who would be appointed by Birmingham and Sen. John P. Buckley.
The committee would meet weekly with Gov. Ely to cooperate on passage of legislation he supported.
Gov. Ely was inaugurated on Jan. 8, 1931, after defeating the incumbent Republican Governor Frank Allen. Ely received 606,902 votes and Allen received 590,228 votes, according to the book Four Decades of Massachusetts Politics: 1890-1935 by Michael Hennessey.
Ely was the first Democratic governor of the state since 1914, when David I. Walsh held the position.
During his inaugural address, Ely asked the legislature for a bond issue of $20 million for public works to help employ the unemployed workers hit by the Depression. He said half of that money should be spend on public buildings and the rest on highways.
Ely requested another $1 million that he would spend at his discretion on work projects designed to get the unemployed working immediately and $300,000 for improvement of state forests, work along public ways, and other projects.
The newly elected governor also called for the appointment of a commission to study the problem of unemployment and propose ways to provide relief now and to avoid it in the future, including adopting unemployment insurance. He also proposed a reduction in the age limit to receive old age assistance.
He backed a study by the legislature about regulating power holding companies, “which are now the means of circumventing the present laws of the Commonwealth in reference to the regulation and ownership of utilities.”
Ely supported modification of the Volstead Act, which implemented Prohibition, to “put the matter of intoxicating liquors on a reasonable, sane and enforceable basis, in the interest of temperance and sobriety and the peace and good order of the Commonwealth and the country.”
Regarding public control of the Boston Elevated Railway, Ely said that the “chief object and real justification of the present method of doing business with the Boston Elevated Railway is to provide continuity of reasonable service rather than to protect the interests of private investors in the securities of the company.”
He favored strengthening the sale of securities law and transferring the bureau that implements the law out of the Department of Public Utilities.
In March, Birmingham said that the Democratics in the House and Senate plan to invite Ely to a luncheon to discuss legislation before the state legislature, the Boston Globe reported March 13, 1931, p. 27. A caucus was called at the close of the legislature session by the Democratic steering committee of the House. Birmingham indicated that other caucuses would likely be called to discuss pending legislation.
The Globe also reported that Birmingham gave a speech at the Expressmen's League annual dinner in the Parker House on March 12 in which he advocated for an increase of one cent in gasoline tax to fund improvements to the state highways.
As the democratic floor leader, Rep. Birmingham recorded the opposition of the Democratic Party in the House to a bill that would ease restrictions on doctors to prescribe contraception to women, reported the Springfield Republican, Feb. 19, 1931, pp. 1, 2.
The debate over the bill pitted representatives of the Protestant religion against those of the Catholic religion.
The bill was supported by prominent members of the Boston medical community, including Dr George Gilbert Smith, who spoke in favor of the measure. He said that the measure would clarify that doctors have the right to prescribe contraceptive measures when the health of the patient warrants it.
Smith noted that current laws did not prohibit the use of contraception but they did prohibit the sale of drugs and instruments for such purpose. The bill was intended to clarify the law in this regard.
The Massachusetts Federation of Churches, a group representing 90 percent of the Protestant church members in the state, supported the bill, while the Massachusetts Catholic Women’s league opposed it.
Rev. Kenneth McArthur, executive secretary of the federation, said that his group had examined the bill and unanimously supported its passage.
Father Jones I. J. Corrigan, a Boston College professor representing Cardinal O’Connell, opposed the bill on the grounds of “decency,” saying that he was opposed to degeneracy.”
He said that the bill’s passage would open the gate to clinics teaching about the subject of contraception. “People who love their children and don’t want them menaced by anything like this measure,” he said
Rep. Birmingham introduced a bill in the 1930 legislative session to place power holding companies under the regulation of the Department of Public Utilities.
Speaking in support of his bill before the Committee on Power and Light April 29, Birmingham said that “only last week the Koppers interests secured control of the Charlestown Gas & Electric Company, while we discuss the advisability of restraining such mergers,” reported the Boston Herald, April 30, 1930, p. 21.
Citing the proposed takeover of the city hall power plant by the Edison company and the plan to have Edison supply electricity in the new post office building, he urged the city and federal government to “join with us in attempting to have rates reasonable instead of trying to save a few dollars.”
During the afternoon session of the committee’s hearing, Frank D. Comerford, president of the New England Power Association, said his group is willing to accept state regulation but it sees no differences between its interest and the public interest.
Comerford supported the majority report of the special power commission, which supported maintaining the status quo with regard to regulation. Birmingham authored the minority report that was highly critical of the majority’s conclusions.
His association’s policy is “to provide adequate facilities for service and to reduce rates as quickly as feasible in order that increased use, by reason of lower rates, may make use of the facilities,” he told the committee.
Comerford stressed that his association contributed investment and employment to Massachusetts and the New England region and that it had many small local shareholders.
“I believe that on the whole the great body of the public is satisfied with its utilities and believes that there are other and more important matters requiring public attention. Has it occurred to you, as it has to me, that in all the agitation arising from the hearings of the investigating committee and the hearings which you have held this year and in previous years, practically no interest has been shown by any one except the same small group of zealous advocates?,” Comerford concluded.
Rep. Birmingham opposed any attempt to increase taxes on low wage earners as part of a 10 percent state tax increase proposed by Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and half-heartedly endorsed by Gov. Joseph Ely, the Boston Herald reported March 7, 1931, p. 1.
Curley recommended the tax increase to pay for public welfare expenditures, old age assistance, expansion in state activities, and Ely’s public works program. Boston would get $1 million from the increase, while other cities and towns would get rest of the money based on their last income tax returns.
Curley directed Corporation Counsel Samuel Silverman to work with Tax Commissioner Henry Long in drafting a tax bill that would apply the tax increase retroactively to the 1930 tax year.
The mayor dismissed arguments that the increase was unconstitutional, citing a similar tax imposed on foreign and domestic corporations in 1918 to pay for the war bonus and the income tax increase in 1923 to pay for national bank tax reimbursements.
Curley threatened to increase the city’s real estate tax if he didn’t get the 10 percent state income tax hike.
Even though much of the Curley tax increase would go to the cities and towns, local officials were not sure such an increase in the tax burden was advisable, according to a canvass by the Boston Herald.
The newspaper spoke to state legislators, mayors, and selectmen, who acknowledged the need for additional funds but feared the political backlash such a tax increase might create.
Business leaders were virtually united in their opposition to the mayor’s tax proposal, arguing that it would burden tax payers and slow any economic recovery.
Rep. Birmingham backed an order filed by Rep. Paul Dever of Cambridge to direct the attorney-general to investigate the Department of Public Utilities over the sale of securities of Page & Shaw, the Boston Herald reported May 28, 1930, p. 24.
Birmingham said that unlisted securities of that character are sold only under permits from the Department of Public Utilities. He said that some of the permits had been issued to high-powered salesmen with criminal records.
Birmingham alleged that two other concerns were operating as the Page & Shaw firm did.
Dever charged that the stock selling was one of the greatest frauds ever perpetuated on the people of Massachusetts. He said that the Department of Public Utilities had been warned about the suspicious nature of the stock on Sept. 17 but waited until Dec. 14 to issue a stop order against the firm. At that point, $1.7 million worth have stock had been sold.
Dever said that the attorney-general was needed to carry out the investigation of the department. “Would it have been desirable to have had the police department investigate the Garrett case?” Dever asked.
Dever’s order was not adopted by the House following an adverse reporting of the Rules Committee.