House, Senate differ on COVID spending, voting rights
Same-day voter registration may be flashpoint between branches
THE HOUSE AND SENATE may agree on broad contours of policy, but when it comes to actually passing bills, the devil’s in the details.
That truism is on full display this week as the Senate took up a COVID-19 relief bill that previously passed the House, and the House plans to consider a version of a voting reform bill that passed the Senate.
The House last week passed a bill to provide $55 million for COVID-19 expenditures. That bill included $25 million to expand COVID-19 testing sites, $5 million for efforts to increase vaccination rates among children ages five to 11, and $25 million to buy and distribute high-quality masks to students and faculty in public schools.
The Senate on Wednesday voted on a slightly different bill. The Senate would earmark $5 million for community health center testing infrastructure and $7 million to organizations focused on vaccine education in disproportionately impacted communities, while requiring the administration to develop a vaccine equity plan. It would distribute masks to health care facilities, not just schools. The Senate bill imposes requirements on the Division of Unemployment Assistance related to its ability to recover overpayments, and adds a provision providing some limited civil immunity from lawsuits for health care professionals providing COVID-related services. The State House News Service reported that senators tacked on an additional $20 million in spending during the floor debate.
Both Senate and House leaders have expressed interest in getting the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker quickly, to help Massachusetts weather the current COVID surge – if they can reconcile their differences.
A more significant policy debate – and one with less of an urgent deadline – comes on voting reforms.
The Senate in October passed an expansive election reform package that included same-day voter registration, permanent voting by mail, expanded early voting, and provisions to make it easier for incarcerated people to vote to cast their ballots.
House Speaker Ron Mariano pointed out this week that he previously voted against same-day voter registration. A bill released Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is teed up for a Thursday vote, does not include same-day voter registration.The House bill is similar to the Senate bill in that it expands early voting to all primary and general elections and makes it easier for eligible incarcerated people to vote. It also makes voting-by-mail permanent, enshrining into law a policy that was initially proposed as a pandemic-era temporary accommodation.
Republicans in the Legislature have repeatedly raised concerns about the security of voting by mail. But with Democrats overwhelmingly controlling the House and Senate, they usually have the votes to defeat GOP opposition. The harder question may be whether Democrats in the House or Democrats in the Senate will cave on same-day voter registration and whether – and in what time frame – a deal can be reached.