Beacon Hill’s snail pace of action
Few substantive laws have been approved so far this year
Procrastinating is a way of life on Beacon Hill. Almost 10 months into the first year of a two-year legislative session, there has been a lot of talk but very little action.
According to legislative records, a total of 104 bills have made their way through the Legislature so far this year and been signed into law by the governor. That sounds like a lot of legislation, but most of the laws are routine matters lawmakers could do in their sleep.
Of the 104 laws approved so far this year, 57 dealt with strictly local matters, such as exempting a municipal job from Civil Service or fixing a town election date. Another 36 laws created sick leave banks for state employees. That leaves 11 laws dealing with more substantive issues, and most of them were budget appropriations that had to pass to keep state government operating.
The fiscal 2016 budget was the most significant law passed this year. It not only contained appropriations for state agencies but implemented a number of major policy changes. For example, the budget revamped the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, created the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, and granted the T a five-year exemption from the so-called Pacheco Law, which restricts privatization of public services. The budget also increased the Earned Investment Tax Credit, although a separate law helped carry that out.
The issues that have dominated discussions on Beacon Hill have made little progress through the Legislature so far. The opioid crisis is the No. 1 issue for most policymakers, but Gov. Charlie Baker didn’t file his bill on that issue until Oct. 15. A hearing on the governor’s bill is set for Nov. 16, two days before the Legislature is scheduled to recess for the year. When lawmakers return to Beacon Hill in January, they will have roughly seven months to complete their work before returning to their districts to seek reelection.
Legislation dealing with the region’s energy issues will probably have to wait until next year, although there is some movement to deal with a solar incentive called net metering before the break. Lifting the charter school cap is mired in debate in the Senate and unlikely to surface as legislation until next year, if at all. Baker filed a bill in April to regulate transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, but the issue has gained little momentum since. House officials pledged to take up legislation updating the state’s Public Records Law before the break, but it’s unclear when a bill will emerge from committee.
Most on Beacon Hill, including Baker, accept the glacial pace of action as a fact of life. Asked on Wednesday whether he was growing impatient, Baker said he would prefer legislation to move more quickly but recognizes why it rarely does.“Look, it’s easy for me to say I want to see action sooner rather than later,” he said. “I’m one vote. There’s 200 legislators – 160 in the House and 40 in the Senate – who represent both parties and a lot of points of view and a lot of geography. I understand that that’s a more deliberative process than takes place on the executive side. As long as we’re still talking about this stuff and we’re talking about it in a serious way, I’m going to assume they’re serious about getting these problems solved.”
Baker said he remains hopeful an opioid law could pass this year. “I think anything’s possible on this stuff,” he said, adding that legislative leaders are serious about addressing the issues. “They engage. They ask questions. They tell us what they think and then they make the call,” he said.