Here’s what Baker signed, amended, and vetoed
Governor raises equity concerns about ‘mobility pricing’ commission
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday took a slew of legislative actions, clearing his desk of many of the major bills that were sent to him in the final days of the legislative session.
Baker signed an $11.37 billion transportation infrastructure bond bill, with some vetoes, and signed a $164 million bond bill to modernize technology at the judiciary. He signed a bill improving mental health care by ensuring parity in insurance coverage, addressing long emergency room waits, and shoring up mental health services in schools. He agreed to tighten the state’s gun licensing laws in response to a US Supreme Court ruling.
Baker vetoed a bill that would have expanded eligibility for state-subsidized health insurance through the Massachusetts Health Connector.
Here’s a look at a few of Baker’s actions.
The massive transportation bond bill includes a huge range of transportation projects: highway repairs, rail maintenance, road paving, bridge maintenance, transportation planning, airport improvements, regional transit networks, and various transportation grant programs. There is $175 million to promote electric vehicles. The bill also regulates e-bikes.
“MassTRAC will invest $11.4 billion in the Commonwealth’s roads, bridges and environmental infrastructure through proven, existing programs, including Complete Streets and the Municipal Small Bridge program,” Baker said in a statement, using the name his administration gave the bill.
In his signing letter, Baker said the spending will unlock $1.8 billion in federal highway funds, and will let the state and municipalities compete for up to $3.5 billion in federal discretionary grant funds. “Overall, this legislation represents a crucial next step implementing critical infrastructure investments designed to modernize the state’s transportation network while supporting carbon reduction and resiliency goals,” Baker wrote.
The bill includes $400 million for the MBTA to address safety issues uncovered by a federal safety review, in response to recent train derailments and other problems. It also requires the MBTA to create a three-year improvement plan, with independent oversight, and requires additional reporting of safety incidents.
Baker vetoed language requiring the MBTA to consult with municipal officials before eliminating bus service, restricting the type of electric vehicles the MBTA can purchase, requiring the commuter rail to provide additional parking during construction, and requiring the MBTA to make certain service additions, like restoring tourist services on the Berkshire Scenic railway. He vetoed or returned with amendments several additional reporting requirements that legislators sought to impose on the administration, like a weekly report on MBTA hiring.
The bill includes $275 million to pursue East-West passenger rail between Springfield and Boston and establishes a commission to examine what type of oversight authority should be created.
The Legislature tried to create a commission to study “mobility pricing,” which can include tolls and congestion pricing, which are fees for driving in a particular area at a particular time. But Baker returned that section unsigned, citing concerns about equity issues associated with congestion pricing. He said changes in commuting patterns due to COVID-19 could exacerbate inequities, since workers who have the means to change their commuting times are also those workers most able to afford to pay.
Judiciary and guns
The bill Baker signed will authorize up to $165.5 million in spending to upgrade technology in the judiciary. The money will go toward security, modernizing operations, and creating a courthouse where all transactions can occur digitally – a far cry from today’s heavily paper-based system.
Lawmakers included as an amendment to the bill language tightening gun licensing standards in response to the US Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which eliminated some discretion licensing authorities previously had in granting gun licenses. The new law spells out specific people who are prohibited from getting a gun license, like someone subject to a restraining order for harassment and someone whose behavior suggests a risk to public safety.
The gun rights advocacy group Gun Owners Action League opposed the change, and a legal challenge is likely.
Baker signed a wide-ranging mental health bill that aims to improve the struggling system and ensure all residents can access the health care they need.
Baker said the legislation “expands access to behavioral health services, enhances our understanding of behavioral health challenges and takes steps to ensure our health care system treats mental health the same way we do physical health.”
Among other provisions, the bill will guarantee insurance coverage for annual mental health wellness exams. It better enforces existing laws requiring equal insurance coverage for physical and mental health care and eliminates the ability of insurers to place administrative barriers on coverage for mental health care.
It addresses the problem of long waits in emergency rooms for an inpatient psychiatric bed by creating online portals where hospital providers can identify open beds. It creates an expedited admissions process for minors under 18.
There will be a new state office focused on overseeing behavioral health care. The bill provides support for school districts to offer improved mental health services. There are provisions allowing clinicians in training to do more under supervision in order to expand the workforce.
Danna Mauch, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, said between mental health money allocated in the state budget and the policies in the new bill, “there’s both programming provisions and there’s money to try to address access problems in the system.” She said provisions aimed at forgiving student loans and building training pipelines will address longstanding workforce challenges.
Mary McGeown, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a leader in the Children’s Mental Health Campaign, said provisions requiring schools to create emergency response plans to behavioral health crises will help support children while keeping them out of the emergency room. She said it is vital to have services and supports in place to help particularly young children. “There are so many things we can do to invest in kids so what they’re experiencing today is not their outcomes as adults,” she said.
The bill, McGeown said, “does a tremendous amount to respond to many of the issues we saw pre-pandemic and during the pandemic.”
Health Connector pilot
Baker’s veto of the Health Connector pilot was not a surprise since he previously returned the same language with an amendment, which lawmakers failed to adopt. Because the legislature has concluded formal sessions for the year, they cannot override his veto.
Lawmakers had agreed in the state budget to a two-year pilot program that would expand eligibility for state-subsidized ConnectorCare insurance to individuals earning less than 500 percent of the federal poverty level, about $68,000 a year for an individual, making an estimated 37,000 more people eligible. Currently the subsidies are only eligible for people earning less than 300 percent of federal poverty, or $40,700 for an individual.
Advocates, including Health Care for All and the Massachusetts Medical Society, portrayed the pilot as a way to help families afford health insurance at a time when many people are struggling financially. Dr. Theodore Calianos, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, called the subsidy program “an important resource that will allow more of our patients to have high-quality insurance while reducing out-of-pocket costs at a time in which so many individuals and families need help.”
The House Ways and Means Committee estimated the pilot would cost the state $50 million, and would be particularly useful as people are forced to leave MassHealth plans when the federal public health emergency ends. (During the emergency, the federal government prohibited the state from redetermining eligibility for MassHealth.) Lawmakers would pay for it with savings the state accrued from enhanced federal insurance premium subsidies.
But Baker, when he signed the budget, returned that provision unsigned with an amendment requiring the Health Connector to study implementation and costs before moving ahead with the pilot. The Legislature declined to adopt Baker’s amendment and voted along party lines to pass their original language again.In his veto letter Wednesday, Baker said he would rather the Health Connector focus on getting people who are already eligible to sign up for plans, instead of expanding eligibility. “The potential impact on carriers and enrollees, availability of enhanced federal funding and subsidies, and Connector systems changes needed to support such a program are all critical factors that need to be fully understood to minimize market disruption and ensure fiscal and operational viability,” Baker wrote.
Amy Rosenthal, executive director of the health care consumer advocacy group Health Care For All, called Baker’s decision “a significant step backward for health care coverage and access in Massachusetts.”