New House panels to focus on economic recovery, childcare
DeLeo says short-term budget likely for July
HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO on Thursday announced the creation of new House panels to examine legislative priorities related to the state’s recovery, with a focus on the economy and childcare, while declaring that there remains too much uncertainty over revenue to craft a budget for the next fiscal year on the Legislature’s usual timetable.
DeLeo, speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in a video webinar, said although Gov. Charlie Baker is in charge of opening and closing the economy during a state of emergency, it is the role of the House “to foster, aid, and assist that recovery, to pass laws that put Massachusetts in the best position to work its way out of this unprecedented challenge.”
In mid-March, the House created a committee, which included several members with public health backgrounds, to look mostly at the House’s internal processes in light of COVID-19.
DeLeo is now forming a new committee, which the speaker is calling the Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee, to be led by two of his top lieutenants — House Majority Leader Ron Mariano and Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner. The speaker said the committee will identify legislative priorities related to economic recovery in order “to mitigate economic hardship, minimize unemployment and job loss, and stabilize small business ownership.”
In addition, an existing restaurant promotion commission led by Tourism Committee chair Paul McMurtry will be repurposed to look at restaurant recovery. DeLeo said one issue the House is already looking at is allowing restaurants to change their liquor licenses so they can serve alcohol outdoors. DeLeo said the House has also received requests from restaurant owners about waiving late fees for remitting overdue meals taxes to the state.
Perhaps the biggest issue pending before the House that was upended by the coronavirus pandemic is the state budget. Typically, the House debates its version of the budget in April and the Senate follows in May. This year, the House has not even released its proposal. Economists estimate the state will face revenue loss of anywhere from $2 billion to $6 billion next year, due to the shuttered economy.
DeLeo said there is too much uncertainty about revenue and federal stimulus to craft a budget. “Without more concrete information, it’s simply not possible to immediately provide sound details about the budget or our approach,” DeLeo said. “It is so much more important to operate with reliable information than to do something for the sake of making a quick announcement.”
DeLeo said he would prefer to see the Legislature pass a “one-twelfth budget” for July – an interim spending plan that continues current funding levels for a month while lawmakers hammer out a full-year budget. “Whether that could be extended we’ll have to see,” he said. DeLeo also noted that while the House is meeting virtually, passing a budget with over 1,000 amendments “may take longer than we’re used to.”
DeLeo said he is willing to tap into the state’s rainy day fund, but not so much that it would affect the state’s bond rating or the ability to draw on it in future years, since economic recovery may not be quick. “We have to make sure we keep that stabilization fund…healthy not only for the coming year but for years ahead,” DeLeo said.Before COVID-19 hit, the House passed a major transportation revenue bill, which is pending before the Senate. Now, DeLeo said transportation will continue to be a priority, although discussions are likely to center on immediate needs. In the short-term, he said he wants to hear more from the Baker administration on plans for the MBTA – what level of service will be available as ridership changes and people return to work and what safety precautions regarding things like social distancing will be put in place.
With the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board scheduled to sunset next month, DeLeo said he hopes the board will continue operating.