Long to-do list for end of legislative session
Abortion, budget, health care, transportation all priorities
IT’S JULY 1, and this month is shaping up to be an enormously busy one on Beacon Hill. There’s one month until the Legislature wraps up its business for the 2021-2022 legislative session and, as is typical, lawmakers have a lot left on their plates. They have billions of dollars in budget and bond bills to consider, bills in final stages of negotiation on priorities like sports betting and cannabis, and responses to national events related to guns and abortion. Several stated priorities – like improving early education and mental health care – remain in flux.
The lofty goals set by legislative leaders were clear in a statement issued by Senate President Karen Spilka on Tuesday which listed among her priorities “transformative reforms to our mental health and health care systems, a commitment to build up our early education ecosystem, providing tax relief to help working families, reaching our net-zero 2050 goals and advancing equity and inclusion in the cannabis industry,” in addition to defending state gun laws and protecting abortion rights.
The biggest piece of unfinished business is the fiscal 2023 state budget. Although the fiscal year begins July 1, lawmakers have blown past that deadline regularly the last few years. This year appears no different with the budget bill remaining in conference committee as the Legislature on Monday advanced an interim budget bill to keep government funded in the meantime. Some of the policies up for discussion as part of the massive budget bill include providing free phone calls to incarcerated people, offering universal free school meals, banning child marriage, and funding abortion services. Big ticket items that conferees must agree on include how much to spend on housing assistance, early education, and local aid.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, included in his January budget proposal a $700 million tax break package aimed at helping seniors, renters, parents, and low-income taxpayers, while also adjusting the estate tax and lowering the tax rate on short-term capital gains. With gas prices soaring, Baker has since joined legislative Republicans calling for a temporary gas tax holiday. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have said they intend to consider their own tax-related package before the session ends, but details have not yet been released.
Baker has proposed what he is calling the FORWARD infrastructure bond bill, a $9.7 billion economic development bill authorizing major transportation and infrastructure projects. Lawmakers are likely to craft their own versions of an economic development bill, a common vehicle used to fund myriad local projects.
Lawmakers must also decide how much, if any, of the remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act money they want to spend this year. Baker, who leaves office in January, has been pushing to get all the money out the door quickly, while the Democratic-controlled Legislature has preferred to hold some back.
Several major bills have passed the House and Senate but remain in conference committee. There is legislation legalizing sports betting, a priority of House Speaker Ron Mariano. Whether to allow betting on college games has emerged as a major disagreement. Both bodies, led by the Senate, passed bills on mental health that address emergency department boarding, payment parity for mental and physical health care services, and insurance coverage, though the House bill has a greater focus on pediatric mental health.
Both bodies passed bills that aim to make the cannabis industry more equitable by creating a public loan fund and reforming the host community agreement process. Both bodies passed climate change bills with a potpourri of policy prescriptions related to developing more clean energy infrastructure. The Senate version focuses on climate change more broadly, including building codes and electric vehicles, while the House focuses mainly on offshore wind. The two bodies are also negotiating reforms to the governance of the state’s two soldiers’ homes. And they are considering a bond bill to fund government building projects, into which lawmakers introduced a five-year moratorium on prison construction.
In addition to the mental health bill, the House and Senate also passed bills addressing different segments of the health care market. The House bill, prompted by a proposed expansion of Mass General Brigham into the suburbs, would impose increased state scrutiny and regulation on hospital expansions. The Senate has focused its efforts on reining in the cost of prescription drugs, with a bill that would cap insulin prices and provide more transparency and state regulation related to how drug prices are set. Baker proposed his own bill that would shift more spending toward primary care and behavioral health care. The House has not yet considered the drug bill; the Senate has not considered the hospital expansion bill; and neither has taken up Baker’s bill.
For the last five years, Baker has been pushing lawmakers to consider his proposals to address modern crimes related to distributing sexually explicit materials. The House finally passed a bill in May that would create a diversionary framework for minors caught sexting, sending sexually explicit texts, and would create a new crime of revenge porn, distributing without permission explicit photographs that were taken consensually. The Senate has not yet considered it.
Baker has also been pressing lawmakers to pass a version of his bill expanding the circumstances under which a judge can order someone held pretrial on grounds of “dangerousness.” And he hopes to expand the state’s wiretapping law to let the police wiretap suspects of serious crimes unrelated to organized crime.
Lawmakers in the House are working on a child welfare bill to improve educational oversight at the Department of Children and Families, make the child advocate more independent, and establish rights for foster parents. The Senate on Thursday passed own version of a foster care bill of rights and another bill streamlining data reporting requirements at DCF, while addressing some of the problems identified by recent reviews of tragedies related to children under DCF care.
Versions of a bill banning hairstyle discrimination have passed both bodies but not made it to Baker.
Other bills were prompted by outside circumstances. After the horrific shooting at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas, lawmakers began discussing whether changes are needed to Massachusetts gun laws. This debate is colored by a recent US Supreme Court ruling that jeopardizes part of Massachusetts’ law giving police chiefs discretion to determine if someone is “suitable” to obtain a gun license.
After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, there were calls for the Legislature to take up a reproductive health-related bill. A bill that passed the House Wednesday would protect Massachusetts abortion providers from various legal and licensing consequences if they care for residents from states where abortion is illegal. It would also let pharmacists dispense emergency contraception over the counter. Another bill that could potentially be considered would improve access to medication abortion on college campuses.A recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling throwing out a ballot question related to employment status and benefits for app-based drivers could spur lawmakers to act on that issue. Other bills related to banning the insurance practice of step therapy, enhancing military veterans’ benefits, criminalizing sexual assault by medical professionals, providing easier access to HIV medication, and striking archaic laws banning sodomy – among many other topics – are in various stages of legislative action and could arise before the end of the session.