Legislative work on ice
State lawmakers respond to the pandemic
TWO WEEKS AGO, the biggest question facing the state Legislature was what the Senate would do with the House’s $600 million transportation revenue package. The House was developing its version of the state budget. Bills on housing and health care were being developed behind the scenes.
Today, all that work is postponed, shuttled to the back burner amid the coronavirus outbreak. Lawmakers are focusing almost exclusively on the response to COVID-19, leaving open the question of what will happen to everything else. The two-year legislative session concludes in July and lawmakers often leave their most substantial work for the session’s end. But with uncertainty about how long coronavirus will continue to impact the state and what the long-term fallout will be, most of that work remains in jeopardy.
“For right now, we are focusing on legislation related to COVID-19, that is our priority,” Senate President Karen Spilka said at a Monday press conference, after meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. “The health and wellness and safety of the residents in our communities, helping businesses, helping employees, that is our priority right now and that is what we are discussing and working.”
Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, is leading the Senate task force.
Comerford said the group is informing Spilka’s office about urgent issues that need to be taken to the governor; considering budgetary recommendations; and working on targeted legislation. It established subgroups exploring different issues, including elections, courts, the social safety net, education, transportation, health care and economic development.
Comerford said for now, the task force is focused on issues that are “the urgent end of short term.” This includes things like expanding access to unemployment benefits, addressing housing issues like evictions and foreclosures, and dealing with education-related deadlines and testing. Senate task force member Sen. Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat, said other issues being looked at relate to health care, like ensuring hospitals have sufficient capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment.
Friedman said lawmakers have to figure out what Baker can do via executive order and what requires legislation and be prepared to act so the Legislature “is not a barrier.”
Baker on Monday filed bills to expand individuals’ ability to claim unemployment benefits more quickly; give municipalities more flexibility in areas like meetings and budgeting; and designate September 14, 2020, a legal holiday to support the rescheduled Boston Marathon.
The Senate and House both passed the unemployment benefits bill Wednesday, speeding it to Baker’s desk. Lawmakers are considering Baker’s other two bills.
Looking further ahead, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said supporting businesses will be important “so our employer infrastructure doesn’t collapse.” Baker already set up a small business loan fund.
Part of the challenge is that the 160-member House and 40-member Senate cannot meet safely in full formal sessions, given the guidance by public health officials to avoid congregating. Public hearings cannot be held, although committees are accepting written testimony.
Informal sessions, attended by only a handful of lawmakers, can be used to pass bills no one objects to. Lawmakers already used informal sessions to pass the unemployment benefits bill and legislation creating a $15 million coronavirus-related reserve fund.
Rep. Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat and member of the House task force, said that group “is evaluating operations, including committee hearing schedules and formal legislative sessions to ensure that the business of legislating continues without interruption.”
The state budget
The biggest, most important bill in any legislative session is the annual state budget. Baker unveiled his $44.6 billion budget proposal in January, and the House planned to release its version in April.
Public budget hearings have now been cancelled, and DeLeo said House budget writers cannot yet say whether the budget will be on time. “Right now, we’re really pretty much just focused on this issue,” DeLeo said, referring to coronavirus. “That does not mean obviously that we’re not meeting or talking to folks relative to the budget.”
Exacerbating the difficulty is the fact that earlier predictions about revenues are now outdated, given the devastating economic impact of coronavirus and the containment efforts, which are shuttering large swaths of the economy. State budget writers agreed in January to base the fiscal 2021 budget on an expectation that the state will collect $31.15 billion, or 2.8 percent growth over the current year.
While it is too early to know the full extent of the virus’s impact – which will depend on how long the pandemic and shutdowns last – the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that fiscal 2021 revenues could drop by $2 billion to $3 billion compared to the initial estimate. Lawmakers may also have to fill a major gap in the current budget and may have to pay for enhanced social services. Another wild card is what stimulus money becomes available from the federal government.
“We’re in many ways in uncharted territory,” Tarr said. “It’s fair to say the revenue estimates we’ve been operating from are going to cease to be relevant, or cease to be accurate, and we’re going to have to deal with that reality.”
A spokesman for House Ways and Means chair Aaron Michlewitz did not respond to requests for comment, but Michlewitz told the State House News Service that “it would seem highly unlikely that we would have a budget in April.”
Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues said lawmakers “are very aware” that the coronavirus response affects the economy. “Senate Ways and Means is working diligently to monitor how these developments will impact the state budget, and also evaluating how best to move forward,” Rodrigues said. “We are committed to working closely with the House and Administration in the coming days and weeks to provide steady leadership to the budget process.”
Sarah Finlaw, a spokeswoman for Baker, said the governor has filed several emergency bills to address coronavirus and the administration “looks forward to working with the Legislature to enact these bills and the budget in a timely fashion.”
Tarr said collaboration will be key. “I think we’re going to have to work hard to get to a consensus document in an expedited way, and there may not be as much latitude for broad-based negotiations as in the past,” he said.
Several lawmakers noted that if the budget is delayed, lawmakers can pass a “one-twelfth budget,” a one-month budget that extends current spending levels.
A big question is where this leaves the other business lawmakers had been conducting – including the transportation revenue bill, proposals to address climate change, a housing bill proposed by Baker, initiatives to improve the health care system, and an effort to legalize sports betting.
Lesser, whose committee is in charge of a major economic development bill and sports betting legalization, said for now, “Everything that is not urgent and directly related to the response to the COVID-19 outbreak does have to be put in proper context, and the response and the recovery needs to be our number one priority.” He said bills could be reshaped in light of coronavirus. For example, the economic development bill could become a means to aid the economic recovery.
Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who chairs the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, said her priority now is determining the needs of her constituents and also continuing her committee work by looking at mental health-related issues through the lens of COVID-19. For example, she wants to ensure that behavioral health treatment provided by phone or video conference is covered by insurers, and that treatment for substance abuse continues to be accessible. Decker had previously been developing a children’s behavioral health bill, but said she is now switching focus to ensuring children’s behavioral health needs are met during the outbreak.
Tarr predicted there will be fewer large omnibus bills in areas like health care, but more incremental bills that take care of immediate needs, like expanding access to telemedicine.
Advocates who have been lobbying on various bills for months say they understand the need to shift focus, but hope their priorities will get some consideration.
Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said he is “optimistic” lawmakers will do something on transportation. The House already passed its bill and senators had planned to take up a proposal in May. Although proposed tax increases could become less palatable amid a likely national recession, the increased revenue could be useful to create transportation-related jobs.
“Obviously their attention and focus is on this immediate crisis and that’s the right place for it to be,” Dempsey said. “But the problems and challenges of transportation are not going away, and it is and will be a critical time to lay the groundwork with legislation that will prepare us for when we’re back to normal, when the economy is back to full speed, and when we’ll be grateful that we actually made some change.”
David Begelfer, a commercial real estate consultant, is less hopeful about Baker’s bill to spur housing production. Begelfer predicted that construction will be hard hit as projects are put on hold, and he doubts this will be the time for lawmakers to take any bold steps on housing. “I’m afraid the housing debate is going to fade in the background for the time being,” Begelfer said. “I’d like to see it move forward, I just think it’s going to be edged out by all the different types of issues that are coming up right now because of this virus.”
Casey Bowers, legislative director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said, “I think it’s still so new, I think we’re trying to figure out what is moving if anything. We’re obviously very cognizant of the fact that the economy is in a different place than it was even a couple weeks ago.”Bowers said she will continue to push her priorities in different ways – for example, ensuring climate resiliency or the creation of environmental-related jobs are part of any economic recovery bill. “I think we’re still in the wait and see mode as they deal, necessarily so, with the immediate pandemic,” she said.
Jennifer Benson, a former state representative who now leads the Alliance for Business Leadership, a progressive business group, said for now, the Legislature is doing what is needed to respond to the crisis immediately, but she thinks lawmakers can multi-task. “I think there might be some delay…but it doesn’t mean everything is on hold indefinitely,” Benson said. “There are still people working on a whole array of issues moving forward.”