Lawmakers swiftly pass delayed FY21 budget bill
Some controversy in House over abortion expansion
THE HOUSE AND SENATE made quick work on Friday of passing a $46.2 billion state budget for fiscal 2021, sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, despite some controversy over a provision expanding abortion access.
The vote came more than five months into the fiscal year, as lawmakers took extra time to monitor the effects of COVID-19 on the state economy.
The budget passed in a rare Friday afternoon session. The House voted to approve the conference committee report in a 147 to 10 vote. The Senate approved it unanimously.
The House vote occurred just after 1 p.m. – which, under legislative rules, was the earliest time lawmakers could hold a vote on a conference committee report released the prior evening. The Senate vote followed immediately after.
The budget relies on one-time revenue – federal money, excess capital gains tax money, a timing change in sales tax collections, and a $1.7 billion withdrawal from the rainy day fund – to close an estimated $3.6 billion shortfall due to anticipated lower tax collections.
The only one who spoke on the House floor was Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Michlewitz touted the budget as “one for the history books.” While he said it may be the latest full-year fiscal budget in history, he also called it “one of the most remarkable” because of the challenges inherent in drafting a budget during a global pandemic that temporarily shuttered the economy. Michlewitz stressed investments made in education, housing, food insecurity, and addressing domestic violence and substance use disorders.
The budget also includes a provision that would let women as young as 16 obtain abortions without parental or judicial consent and would expand access to abortion when a fetus is older than 24 weeks in cases of a “lethal fetal anomaly.” The language affirms broadly a woman’s right to an abortion in Massachusetts. Michlewitz said this is necessary because after liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was replaced on the US Supreme Court by conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett, “these rights are in jeopardy.”
The “no” votes in the House included Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat, and nine Republican lawmakers. In interviews, several dissenting lawmakers cited the abortion provision, and House policy on earmarks.
Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, said he does not believe lawmakers should be loading up the budget with local earmarks in a time of crisis. And, he said, he does not think the budget should have included the abortion provision. Durant said lawmakers extended the legislative session specifically to deal with the budget and adding the abortion amendment “seems a little bit underhanded to me.”
Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, a Southwick Republican, also voted against the budget because he thinks the abortion policy should have been done as a separate standalone bill. “This was a vote in a lame duck session. We should have been focusing on getting people back to work. They made it about abortion,” he said.
Holmes also opposed the way the abortion amendment was introduced, and he criticized House leaders for allowing earmarks favored by House leaders, but not earmarks he proposed for black and Latino communities. “You’re going to reject new revenue but cut my earmarks for communities that need it badly,” Holmes said.
Rodrigues stressed investments in education, mental health, public health, transportation, and racial justice. “We made a choice to invest in programs and services that help the most vulnerable residents and respond to sectors that have been greatly impacted by the COVID pandemic during this great time of need,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, questioned Rodrigues about draws from the rainy day fund and praised the budget for not raising taxes or fees. Tarr said he believes it was “important we confine ourselves with regard to public policy.” But he did not mention the abortion provision and went on to praise his own policy initiative, also included in the budget, which would require the use of ignition interlocks for first time drunk driving offenders.In addition to laying out spending for the fiscal year that ends June 30, the budget bill includes several policy changes.
With the MBTA planning major service cuts, the budget requires state officials to direct federal stimulus money or higher-than-expected revenues toward preventing these cuts. It would let hemp be sold for the first time in marijuana dispensaries, potentially allowing for the sale of a wider range of hemp-derived products. It would increase welfare grants for the first time in decades. And it would prohibit evictions while someone’s application for rental assistance is pending.