House, Senate budgets contain plenty of policy proposals

Now the 2 branches have to resolve differences, quickly

SO MUCH for a “narrow” budget.

When the House and Senate Ways and Means committees released their fiscal 2021 budget proposals, both were relatively narrow with few policy initiatives. Chairs Aaron Michlewitz and Michael Rodrigues both stressed the need to adopt the budget on a quick time frame, with the state’s temporary budget expiring at the end of November and the fiscal year already five months in. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said at a Massachusetts Association of Health Plans conference that the budget “is not an appropriate place for major policy reform.”

But through the amendment process, lawmakers have now adopted numerous significant policy proposals. Whether a conference committee will be able to resolve differences quickly remains to be seen. Gov. Charlie Baker has line item veto power over the budget, so policy proposals could also die on his desk – although Democrats, with a veto-proof majority in both bodies, could override him.

The most obvious example is a provision expanding abortion access, which was passed in similar forms by the House and Senate. Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr objected to having a major policy proposal taken up in a lame duck budget session, as did Baker – though the governor did not say whether he would veto it.

But that was far from the only policy change, with several more added during this week’s Senate budget debate. The Senate adopted an amendment introduced by Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, to let hemp products be sold in marijuana dispensaries — a potentially significant change that could let smokable hemp flower, hemp-derived vapes, and more CBD-infused food and beverages become available to consumers.

The Senate also adopted a proposal by Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat who chairs the transportation committee, to raise fees on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. Unlike previous proposals by Baker and the House, the fee would be a percentage of the ride’s cost rather than a flat fee hike, with higher fees for single rides and rides during rush hour.

An adopted amendment by Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who chairs the housing committee, would seal eviction records and prevent negative credit impacts for tenants facing eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An amendment introduced by Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat, would create a new ombudsman’s office for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

The Senate also included in the budget several provisions of its mental health bill, which has not yet been taken up by the House. MassLive reported that these provisions include banning extra charges for same-day physical and behavioral health services, requiring a universally accepted set of credentialing forms for mental health providers and setting aside $3.5 million for a pilot program to provide students with behavioral health services over the phone through their schools.

During last week’s House debate, that body adopted several proposals to address education problems created or exacerbated by the pandemic — including an amendment inspired by the tragic death of David Almond requiring better tracking of school attendance records for kids with Department of Children and Family cases.

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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.

Several proposed policy changes were not adopted. Hotel workers, who used the budget to seek the right to be rehired into their old jobs should they reopen, did not get those protections. Lawmakers also declined to use the budget to implement sports betting. The State House News Service reported that Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, introduced multiple amendments aimed at helping bars and restaurants recover from the pandemic, but most were rejected.

Some of these proposals could be revived in either an economic development bill that remains before a conference committee or in standalone legislation.