A resolution for Legislature: Finish last year’s work

As new session starts on Beacon Hill, some old business needs attention

IN A FEW short days, the next legislative session in the Massachusetts State House will begin. New legislators will be sworn in. The governor will give his State of the State address. The mad dash to file bills and secure co-sponsorships will start—and end—in the blink of an eye.

But we’re not there yet. Now is the time for reflections on the past and aspirations for the new. And in that spirit, I’d like to propose a New Year’s resolution for the Massachusetts Legislature: finish last year’s business.

The Legislature will have a lot on its table soon, and indeed, new issues arise all the time. But if they want to avoid the chaotic spectacle that the final days of a legislative session too often are, then it’s good to start early.

Here are a few examples.

Fix the Education Funding Formula. The funding formula that Massachusetts uses to calculate local aid for public school districts dates back to 1993. Cost assumptions from 1993—just like hairstyles—are severely outdated.

And the Legislature knows this. The 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission, created by the Legislature, found that we’re short-changing our schools $1 to $2 billion each year due to outdated assumptions about the cost of health care, special education, English language learner education, and closing racial and economic achievement gaps.

As the birthplace of public education in the US, we should be doing better. Back in May, the Senate—unanimously—passed Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s bill to update the formula and do right by our students. But it faced opposition in the House, where legislators only agreed to update the special education and health care portions of the funding formula.

The promise of public schools is to give every student the ability to succeed, and we shouldn’t be leaving the most marginalized students behind. A majority of state representatives understands this. House leadership just needs to get on board, too.

Protect Our Immigrant Community. Massachusetts voters give Donald Trump his worst approval numbers (we like him even less than New York and California voters do). Attorney General Maura Healey has been doing her part in fighting Trump’s racist mass deportation agenda, and it’s time for the Legislature to do so as well.

Each new day brings new horror stories about families being ripped apart. The least we can do is to say that we won’t be complicit in this here at home.

In May, the Senate decided to do just that, passing four key provisions of the Safe Communities Act in its budget: a ban on police inquiry about immigration status, a prohibition of certain state and local contracts with ICE, basic due process protections, and a guarantee that Massachusetts would not participate in any registry based on religion or nationality. Even top police chiefs supported these provisions.

But many state representatives were skittish. Legislators would do well to remember that the Safe Communities Act is, at its core, about safety: making sure that victims and witnesses are not afraid to talk to the police, and making sure that we aren’t destabilizing communities by tearing families apart. And they’d do well to remember that Hillary Clinton won in more districts than Democrats hold in either chamber: Trumpism is not a winning agenda, nor is standing up for immigrants’ rights a losing one.

Take Action on Climate Change—While We Still Can. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that we need to get our act together fast on climate change. Without transformative changes over the next 12 years, we could hit dangerous tipping points for the climate that could leave us with an uninhabitable planet.

That urgency has yet to translate into policy here in Massachusetts, where electricity providers only have to source 13 percent of their electric load from renewable energy.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill, widely lauded by advocates, that would bring this percentage, known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), to 50 percent by 2030 (a 3 percent annual increase instead of the current measly 1 percent) and remove obstacles to the growth of the solar industry—among many other vital steps toward decarbonizing our economy. But the House, with the backing of the state’s business lobby, succeeded in watering this down to a few piecemeal bills, including an RPS increase of just 2 percent—set to fall back to 1 percent by 2030.

As calls grow nationally for even bolder policy, such as the Green New Deal being proposed in Congress, it’s important to remember that Mother Nature doesn’t wait.

In all three cases, House leadership proved a roadblock. But that isn’t always the case. Blame lies with the Senate for the failure of a campus sexual assault survey bill and a ban on conversion therapy (yes, this abusive, homophobic practice is still legal in Massachusetts) to advance. Both deserve quick action next session as well.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
2019 and 2020 will bring new opportunities and new challenges. The best way to confront them is to start early, be bold, and, at the very least, finish last year’s business.

Jonathan Cohn is co-chair of the Issues Committee at Progressive Massachusetts.