Chang-Diaz reassigned; post left vacant for McMurtry
Education committee now headed by 2 lawmakers from affluent suburbs
SENATE PRESIDENT KAREN SPILKA on Thursday reassigned Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the chamber’s longtime Education Committee chair, on the eve of a major school-funding debate, while House Speaker Robert DeLeo kept the chairmanship of the tourism committee vacant pending the outcome of an investigation into Rep. Paul McMurty for allegedly grabbing the backside of a fellow lawmaker.
Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain had been the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, but Spilka on Thursday moved her out of that position and named her chair of two committees focused on marijuana and children, families, and persons with disabilities.
The switch kept her overall salary stable, but it removed her from the Education Committee just as the Legislature is preparing to debate a major increase in state aid for schools. Education funding legislation failed to pass in the last session as House and Senate negotiators, led by Chang-Diaz and the House chair of the Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley, could not reach agreement.
There had long been tension between the committee co-chairs.
While Lewis noted that he co-sponsored Chang-Diaz’s education funding bill filed earlier this year, he quickly flashed a different rhetorical style on the issue. Soon after Gov. Charlie Baker announced his school funding proposal, Chang-Diaz highlighted failures that she identified in the governor’s bill and said it is “not the equitable reform our state needs.”
Lewis on Thursday had a milder response to the governor’s education funding plan.
“I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction, but I think we’re going to have to talk in more depth,” Lewis said.
Neither Chang-Diaz nor Spilka would comment. Chang-Diaz’s office issued a statement saying she looked forward to her new committee assignments and planned to work this summer for passage of the PROMISE Act, her education proposal.
Rep. Russell Holmes, who, like Chang-Diaz, represents Boston, said her removal as the Senate education chair was a big surprise to him. “That’s a big deal,” he said. “I’m certainly disappointed. Losing Sonia Chang-Diaz is a big loss for the people of Boston.”
Lowell Sen. Edward Kennedy will be the Senate chairman of the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, but he lacks a House counterpart for now.
That post will remain open pending the conclusion of a human resources matter, the speaker’s office said in a statement. The statement did not specifically identify McMurtry of Dedham as the subject of the human resources case, but strongly implied it by specifically referencing the incident that involved McMurtry.
“I just want to see what the outcome is and what the conclusion of HR is relative to – before I make a decision,” DeLeo told reporters when he was asked if he was holding the post open for McMurtry.
There were major shifts in both branches, changing the leadership of the joint committees that hold hearings on the thousands of bills filed in a session. The committees can amend bills, move bills along, or bottle them up.
Both the House and Senate have new chairwomen of the Committee on Health Care Financing – Rep. Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg and Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington. Last session, the House and Senate each passed bills overhauling the health care system, but lawmakers could not agree on a final version to send to the governor.
While the idea of expanding the federal Medicare program so that it covers many more people has gained popularity among some Democrats, neither Benson nor Friedman indicated they want Massachusetts to move in that direction. Friedman seemed most favorable to the idea, saying she supports it in theory.
“In practice I need to understand what that would look like and how it would work. But I’m really interested in first looking at how we take out the complexity of the system and get people better access and better quality,” Friedman said.
Without staking out a position on the policy idea, Benson said that is a matter for Congress to decide while she will focus on other issues.
“Right now we’re focused on universal health care access, and that’s what we need to be continuing to strive for here in Massachusetts. We have to make sure costs are contained. And there’s still a lot more we can do around that,” Benson said. “As far as Medicare for all, I think there’s a big federal conversation happening around that and I think that’s the right place for it. I think right now we have a very vibrant and robust health care system here in Massachusetts that we need to not only protect and maintain but make sure it’s accessible to everyone.”
The vacancies in the House gave the speaker a chance to move particular members up the ranks.
Braintree Rep. Mark Cusack, who headed up the Committee on Marijuana Policy last session, will move to co-chair of the Revenue Committee. Weymouth Rep. James Murphy, who was chairman of the Committee on Steering, Policy, and Scheduling last session, will take over at Financial Services. Gloucester Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who had been a floor leader, will take over the committee covering economic development and emerging technologies. Cambridge Rep. Marjorie Decker will lead the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use & Recovery.Promotions in the Legislature can have domino effects, too. In the Senate, Taunton Sen. Marc Pacheco was removed from a leadership position as Senate president pro tem, which was filled by Belmont Sen. Will Brownsberger. Acton Sen. Jamie Eldridge took Brownsberger’s old post atop the Judiciary Committee; West Springfield Sen. James Welch took Eldridge’s spot leading the Committee on Financial Services; and Friedman took Welch’s former position in charge of health care financing. Pacheco will lead committees dealing with state administration and global warming, which are two areas of interest for him.
“Everyone’s been given new work to do,” said one senator, who said all the changes had “lifted us out of our ruts, and that’s a good thing.”