Baker budget packed with policy proposals

Some deal with pressing matters; other unlikely to go anywhere

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER said Wednesday he understands why lawmakers are taking a long time to negotiate the bills currently pending in conference committees, covering topics from police reform to economic development to health care to transportation.

“They all passed bills that were conceptually consistent with each other but had a heck of a lot of details in each of them that were different,” Baker said. While he would “love to see many enacted sooner,” the governor said he respects the “difficult conversations.”

But that doesn’t mean Baker plans to wait for those bills to get his policy priorities passed. Instead, he’s pinning his hopes on the state budget.

When Baker announced his revised fiscal 2021 budget proposal Wednesday, he included 118 “outside sections,” policy proposals inserted into the budget.

Some relate to budget initiatives – increasing ride-hailing fees, delaying the implementation of a state charitable deduction, accelerating sales tax collections, and establishing a tax credit for businesses that hire people with disabilities. But they also include a potpourri of other policy proposals, many of which were pulled from earlier bills that were never enacted.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan said some came from the governor’s health care bill and others from his transportation bond bill, versions of which are pending in conference committees. A lot were left over from the governor’s January budget bill, and others are perennial initiatives the governor has never previously been able to get passed.

Some have potential – if tenuous — budgetary ties, like letting the state charge the decommissioned Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station for costs related to radiation monitoring and emergency planning, or increasing penalties on natural gas companies for safety violations. Others, less so.

On health care, Baker is reviving proposals to let MassHealth negotiate more drug rebates, to prohibit insurers from charging more because a medical or behavioral health service took place the same day as another visit, to penalize drug manufacturers that raise prices excessively, and to create a universal application for health care providers to join the networks of MassHealth and commercial insurers. A provision included in another bill related to the Department of Children and Families would restructure a team examining child fatalities.

Baker is reprising a provision from an old road safety bill to let the Department of Transportation set speed limits in construction zones and increase related fines. Also transportation-related, he wants to create metrics to standardize how Regional Transit Authorities are funded.

Heffernan described some of the new items as urgent matters – presumably things like Baker’s proposal to give the Department of Public Health more authority over nursing home licensing or to create a COVID-19 recovery fund for early education providers.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

But others seem far from urgent: Repealing a blue law to “allow the hunting of deer by bow and arrow on Sundays” or repealing a prohibition on catching edible crabs from coastal waters between January and April.

Others are perennial retreads that appear no more likely to pass this year than previously. A 15 percent excise tax on manufacturers of opioid medications got a lot of attention when Baker introduced it in 2019. But lawmakers declined to pass it then, and although it is included in an outside section in this year’s budget, it did not merit a mention in Baker’s press conference, and the budget does not rely on any revenue from it.

When Baker first tried to cap sick time accruals for state employees to 1,000 hours in 2016, it created controversy and got strong union pushback. By now, the pattern has been established over several years: Baker repeatedly introduces the proposal, as he did again this week, and lawmakers repeatedly ignore it.