Lawmakers cram a lot in at the end

But they fail to pass budget bill, point fingers at each other


MASSACHUSETTS LAWMAKERS wrapped up work Wednesday on bills calling for long-term K-12 education investments, requiring motorists to use only hands-free technology while driving, and banning flavored tobacco products.

Legislators tried to come up with a late-night deal allocating a more than $1 billion fiscal 2019 surplus, but House and Senate Democrats couldn’t find common ground even though tardiness with that bill has cost the state $30,000 a day in forgone interest since Nov. 1. House Minority Leader Brad Jones called it a “complete failure of the House and Senate Democratic leadership to get this done.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo also expressed frustration. “In my 14 years as Speaker and Chairman of the House Committee on Ways & Means, this is the first time the House and Senate have reached the end of formal session in November without completing a final deficiency budget. The House stands ready to pass a final deficiency budget that will ensure the close-out of all final deficiencies and allow the Administration to close the books. The House looks forward to working with those willing to compromise in the days ahead,” his statement said.

But Senate President Karen Spilka was mystified by the speaker’s remarks after the Senate adjourned at about 12:50 a.m. Thursday. “I have no idea what he means,” she said. “Clearly we sent over many versions. We produced a new bill today to try to move things forward so we will continue to work with the House to try to resolve it.”

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said he wasn’t ready to blame Democratic leaders, but questioned the priorities of the Senate in the final day of formal session.

“I think what we had was a systemic failure. I’m not willing to assign partisan blame but clearly we didn’t reach the goal that we should have and it’s disappointing,” Tarr said. “There were a lot of factors in play, but I think it’s very interesting that we took up two pieces of legislation that really up until quite recently weren’t on anybody’s radar screen and we weren’t able to accomplish the one thing we knew we had a mandate to do,” he continued, referring to bans on flavored nicotine products and single-use plastic bags.

Gov. Charlie Baker, due back in Massachusetts Wednesday night after meetings in Florida with Republican governors, also has on his desk a bill requiring state representatives, senators, mayors and candidates for those offices to use a depository system to report campaign finance information, a change proponents said will lead to more frequent and accurate reporting. If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts will become the first state to have independent third-party verified disclosure for all state-level candidates, Rep. John Lawn said.

The education bill was years in the making and is designed to boost student achievement in low-income communities. Lawmakers anticipate the legislation will help to more fully account for expenses that school districts are incurring and settle battles over charter school funding. They plan to cover the bill’s significant costs with existing revenue sources, which could put pressure on other state spending priorities, especially if recent tax revenue growth rates slow down.

The distracted driving bill, a version of which was sponsored this year by Gov. Baker, comes after years of experimentation with a largely ineffective law banning texting while driving. The bill’s supporters hope it counters public safety hazards on the roads by finally forcing more drivers to put their devices aside, or face fines and potentially, insurance surcharges.

The branches also made significant progress in the last week or so on legislation banning flavored tobacco and imposing a new tax on vaping products. That legislation cleared the Senate Wednesday and the branches quickly reconciled differences and sent a bill to Baker, put the current temporary ban on sales of vaping products in place in response to vape-related lung injuries and deaths.

The bill would ban flavored e-cigarettes immediately upon the governor’s signing of the legislation, while a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes would take effect on June 1, 2020.

In their flurry of legislating, lawmakers also sent Baker a bill designed to improve access to behavioral and mental health services for children, guaranteeing health insurance coverage for foster children until they turn 26, and requiring insurance companies to offer customers accurate online care provider directories.

While much of the focus was on getting significant bills to the governor’s desk before the recess, the House and Senate also took initial steps requiring schools with large low-income student populations to provide breakfast during the instructional day and banning single-use plastic bags, respectively.

The Senate passed a bag ban bill 36-4 that would require stores to charge a 10-cent fee for recyclable paper or reusable bags, while the House unanimously passed a “breakfast after the bell” bill, which has also been a priority of Assistant Senate Majority Leader Sal DiDomenico.

The final week before the mid-session recess was robbed of the some of the drama that had been expected when DeLeo last week said his promised fall debate over new revenue streams to pay for transportation infrastructure would be pushed off until next year.

The Senate is also signaling a desire to address climate change when the Legislature returns in 2020 after Sen. Marc Pacheco repeatedly chastised his colleagues in recent weeks for not acting with more urgency. In addition to setting more aggressive carbon emission reduction requirements, the Senate could consider bills passed by the House or proposed by Gov. Baker to invest over $1 billion in climate adaptation strategies.

“We talk a lot about climate change and climate resiliency and the like, but it was the House who put one billion dollars into the Green Works program,” DeLeo said Wednesday, ticking through a list of accomplishments over the first 11 months of the two year session.

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service