Here’s what passed in marathon all-night legislative session
Sports betting, cannabis equity, and gun licensing make it through
IN A MARATHON all night session, the Massachusetts Legislature finally finished many of their key priorities of the 2021-2022 legislative session, even as one key priority – tax reform – remained undone. They passed bills on equity in the cannabis industry, legalizing sports betting, and tightening gun licensing laws in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling. While lawmakers typically go into the wee hours of the morning when concluding formal sessions on July 31, in a highly unusual move, this year’s Legislature not only worked through the night but was still going as the Monday workday began.
“The final bill comes before us for its passage,” House Speaker Ron Mariano intoned just before 7 a.m. before breaking into an unscripted comment. “Easier said than done,” he added.
House members broke into applause when it was announced at 9:59 a.m. that no further roll calls were anticipated. Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, smiled and declared “done” when he banged the gavel to end the Senate’s session at 10:13 a.m.
The bill that got the most attention was one that did not get done – an economic development bill and a package of tax breaks that got derailed by last minute revelations that an estimated $3 billion dollars will need to be returned to taxpayers under a 1986 law that kicks in when state revenues exceed a certain amount. But many bills did make it to the finish line.
One bill that made it to Baker Monday was one championed by the marijuana industry and marijuana regulators, aimed at fixing problems in the current law, including those that hamper industry diversity. The bill establishes a Social Equity Trust Fund, paid for with 15 percent of marijuana tax revenues, to give grants and loans to minority entrepreneurs.
The bill clarifies rules on host community agreements, ensuring that communities cannot charge marijuana businesses more than 3 percent of sales in community impact fees, and the fees must directly relate to impacts imposed by the business on the community. The bill establishes that no host community agreement can last for more than eight years after a business opens. Municipalities would get 1 percent of tax revenue paid by social equity businesses, to incentivize communities to host those companies.
The bill makes it easier to get records expunged for old marijuana possession and cultivation charges. It adopts a mechanism for cities and towns to allow cannabis cafes. It also lets marijuana companies be treated as legal businesses under the state tax code, rather than as illegal businesses with a higher tax rate, as they are under federal law.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who co-chairs the Cannabis Policy Committee, called the bill a “game changer” and said it will “rebalance the playing field, where so far wealthy corporations have been able buy their way through the licensing process and too many local, small business owners and Black and brown entrepreneurs have been locked out.”
All five Cannabis Control Commissioners issued statements supporting the bill. Commissioner Nurys Camargo said, “This law—codified in the context of many years of racial inequality — now stands to serve the very participants who are most in need of the financial resources to open their doors, kickstart their business, and maintain equity and control of their companies.”
David O’Brien, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, praised the bill, particularly its regulations on host community agreements “Our message to municipalities – your time of collecting onerous fees without showing how it impacts your town is over,” O’Brien said.
One policy whose fate was in serious doubt until the last minute was sports betting legalization. Mariano prioritized passing sports betting this session, but Senate President Karen Spilka was far less enthusiastic. The House and Senate both passed bills legalizing sports betting, but with significant differences. Most notably, the House would have allowed betting on college sports, while the Senate wanted to prohibit it, citing concerns about impacts on college athletes.
The final compromise, adopted Monday morning, would legalize sports betting on professional and most college games, but not on games that include a Massachusetts college team other than in a collegiate tournament. So betting would be allowed for all games of the NCAA tournament but not for a season game where a Massachusetts college team is playing.
Betting would be allowed in-person at casinos and tracks and online using digital apps, with a tax of 15 percent of gross receipts from in-person sports betting and 20 percent from digital or mobile betting, along with hefty licensing fees. The bill includes significant guardrails to protect athletes, ensure integrity in the games, and prevent problem gambling.
There are 33 states that have legalized sports betting, including neighboring Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York.
Jason Robins, CEO of the Boston-based sports betting app DraftKings said in a statement, “We are thrilled that our home state has acted to protect consumers, create jobs, and grow revenue in the Commonwealth.”
Sen. Eric Lesser, who co-chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said, “Once signed by the governor, this new law will open a new industry for our Commonwealth, creating jobs and economic growth. It will also safeguard consumers and athletes with some of the strongest protections in the country while maintaining the integrity of sports.”
The Legislature also sent Baker an $11.37 billion transportation infrastructure bond bill. The 99-page bill is filled with myriad transportation expenditures, from highway repairs to rail maintenance. It includes $400 million for the MBTA to address safety issues uncovered by a federal safety review, in response to recent train derailments and other problems. It includes $275 million to pursue East-West passenger rail between Springfield and Boston and establishes a commission to examine what type of oversight authority should be created. The bill does not require the MBTA to pursue low-income fares, as some transit advocates had hoped.
Baker sounded positive about the bill. “We are grateful that the Legislature has reached a compromise to invest billions into the Commonwealth’s roads, bridges, and public transportation system,” Baker said in a statement. “While I will carefully review the final bill that reaches my desk, I am pleased that it appears this bill contains many of the proposals our administration included in our MassTRAC legislation that we filed several months ago.”
Both bodies agreed on a $164 million bond bill to modernize technology at the Judiciary, but the bill was delayed by an effort to attach language on gun licensing to address the US Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which jeopardized provisions of Massachusetts’s gun licensing statute.
A last-minute conference committee was created Sunday to iron out differences between the two bodies, and a final compromise was released and signed off on by five of the six conferees, with the exception of Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr. It was sent to Baker Monday morning, one of the last items taken up.
Rather than giving discretion to gun licensing authorities, the language clarifies specific people who are prohibited from getting a gun license, including someone subject to a restraining order for harassment and someone whose behavior suggests a risk to public safety. The House version of the bill would have cut the term of a gun license in half from six to three years, which raised concerns among gun owners and the police about the administrative burden and the cost involved. That language was excluded from the final compromise. A gun owners’ lobbying group has said the licensing provision will likely be challenged in court.
A bill overhauling the governance structure of the state’s two soldiers’ homes bounced between the Legislature and the governor in the session’s final days, with a compromise emerging, then getting sent back by Baker with an amendment related to implementation timing, which lawmakers adopted, then returned to the governor.
The House and Senate both passed mental health bills to address long emergency room waits for mental health patients; ensure insurance coverage for mental health care, including annual mental health exams; and address workforce challenges. The initial House version included more provisions related to children’s mental health, like helping schools develop their health services. A compromise bill emerged Monday morning.
Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat who co-led the negotiations, spoke on the Senate floor on the bill just before 9 a.m. after lawmakers worked through the night. Cyr noted that while legislators had not gotten much sleep, around 600 Massachusetts residents had spent the last night in an emergency room waiting for a psychiatric inpatient bed to open up. Cyr said the bill addresses areas including mental health wellness exams, insurance parity, patient reforms, emergency room boarding, and the need to bolster the workforce.
Spilka, who has made mental health care a top priority, said, “We all deserve to have access to the mental health care we need,” adding that the bill “will save lives.”
The Legislature also sent Baker a bill overhauling the public health system by providing state funding and state standards to the local public health boards that are now run by each individual city and town.Among the health care bills that never made it through: The House passed a bill in November 2021 that aimed to impose more state regulations and scrutiny on hospital expansions, but the Senate never took it up. The Senate passed a bill aimed at reining in the high costs of prescription drugs, which the House ignored.
The two sides worked down to the wire on a bill imposing restrictions on how insurers can use step therapy, where insurers require a patient to try a cheaper treatment or medication before moving on to a more expensive, often newer treatment. But they failed to get it over the finish line.