Recap and analysis of the week in state government
MAY 6, 2022…..One Friday in June 2018, when 18 legislative Democrats gathered around Gov. Charlie Baker as he signed a law striking a 173-year-old abortion ban from the state’s books, the governor declared it “a good day for Massachusetts.”
Almost four years later, Senate President Karen Spilka would reference that law on what she deemed to be “one of the saddest days in the United States’ history.”
“We will not go quietly,” Spilka said. “We will not go into a devastating future that seeks to treat us as second-class citizens.”
Massachusetts, where abortion rights were codified into state law in 2020, was not quiet the day after a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade set off shockwaves throughout the country.
Elected Democrats gathered outside the State House for a press conference Tuesday, urging people to fight at the ballot box and warning of the potential ripple effects on civil rights if the draft decision stands. They recalled the reproductive health laws Massachusetts has passed in recent years, legislation meant as a counterbalance as the Supreme Court’s conservative majority strengthened during the Trump administration.
While Baker and lawmakers alike feted the 2018 law rolling back archaic statues on abortion, adultery and contraception for unmarried women, the Republican governor and Democrats who control the Legislature were at odds over the 2020 law.
The House and Senate overrode Baker’s veto when he struck the abortion language from that year’s state budget.
Baker, at the time, described some parts of the bill — including officially writing abortion rights into state law — as important protections for reproductive rights, but said he could not support certain measures expanding access to later-term abortions and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to get abortions without parental or court consent.
This week, Baker said striking down Roe v. Wade would be an “enormous setback for women across the country” and that he was proud Massachusetts “has and will always protect every woman’s right to choose what is best for them.” He said he’s open to the concept of a law shielding providers from liability if they offer abortion care to patients from states where such services are illegal.
Spilka on Tuesday drew cheers from the crowd when she mentioned that lawmakers got the 2020 abortion law on the books over Baker’s objections. But she and Baker this week became at least partial allies on the issue of tax relief.
A massive revenue haul in April, more than $2 billion more than what was expected, had Baker again pressing for passage of his multi-pronged tax relief plan. April’s surplus alone, Baker noted, could cover the costs of his nearly $700 million package multiple times, and ease some of the pain that high inflation continues to inflict on household and business budgets.
The revenue news prompted Spilka to announce her branch would pursue a tax relief package, something she said would involve working with the House after the Senate wraps up its budget this month.
Because bills changing state revenues must start in the House, the Senate can’t act alone — though senators could add their relief ideas, whatever they may be, into any bill they receive involving tax policy.
It seems unlikely that the more progressive Senate would want the exact same tax breaks as Baker — for one thing, Senate Revenue Chair Adam Hinds at a February hearing was sharply critical of the governor’s proposed cut to the short-term capital gains tax rate — and it’s still unclear what path the House intends to take. It’s not even clear whether lawmakers might use a tax relief package as a vehicle for select tax increases.
The Revenue Committee is seeking to push its deadline to consider nearly 100 tax bills, including Baker’s, until July 31, the last day of formal sessions for this year. With the opinions of 155 House lawmakers to consider, Speaker Ron Mariano said he doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
Eventually, Mariano might only have 154 reps to worry about. But that depends on the U.S. Senate.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources deadlocked on Rep. Maria Robinson’s nomination as assistant secretary of energy in the Office of Electricity, a vote that was already delayed once amid GOP opposition. Now it’s up to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to decide if he wants to bring the Framingham Democrat’s nomination to the floor for a full Senate vote, where Vice President Kamala Harris could be the tiebreaker.
Regardless of if and when she leaves the House, the would-be federal energy official won’t have a formal role to play in the negotiations on competing energy and climate bills on Beacon Hill.
The House and Senate this week charged Telecommunications, Energy and Utility Committee chairs Rep. Jeff Roy and Sen. Mike Barrett with leading that significant lift. Sen. Cindy Creem, Rep. Tackey Chan and minority leaders Rep. Brad Jones and Sen. Bruce Tarr round out the conference committee that will strive for a pre-July 31 reconciliation between the House’s offshore wind bill and the Senate’s broader emissions-reductions package.
The dealmaking, Barrett said, will be “very tough stuff” and not a matter of “trading one of our apples for one of the House’s oranges and neatly coming to a conclusion.”
While the two chairs have different philosophies on the best next step in tackling the climate crisis, Roy said he’s up for the challenge, pledging to use “every ounce of my energy and blood to reach a deal with the Senate on this to get this bill done.”
A deal may be closer in sight on bills opening up access to driver’s licenses for Massachusetts residents without legal immigration status. The Senate this week joined the House in passing its bill with a veto-proof majority, and the two bills’ texts are very similar.
Baker hasn’t exactly said he’d veto the license bill, but when asked about it he repeats his concerns around how the policy would interact with the state’s automatic voter registration law. Baker could try to amend the bill, but the sound rejection of Republican-sponsored amendments in both branches suggest he might not have much luck there.
Senators passed their licensing bill on Thursday, the same day they heard from Senate counsel that staffers’ bid to unionize involves a lot of murky legal questions and learned that two of their colleagues — Hinds and Sen. Eric Lesser, both candidates for lieutenant governor — had tested positive for COVID-19.
With more people back in the State House and an overall uptick in COVID across the state, reports of confirmed cases and possible exposures have been periodically rolling in. The latest came Friday morning, when House lawmakers and staff were notified that three people last in the building on Wednesday or earlier had tested positive.
Saying the COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid has been highly effective, the Baker administration on Wednesday announced a new, free telehealth program to help connect people with the antiviral pills when they’re an appropriate option.
Also Wednesday, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court was busy with challenges to questions bound for November’s ballot. The justices heard a case arguing that Attorney General Maura Healey’s summary of the income surtax ballot question is misleading, as well as a pair of cases contending other questions — one changing the state’s liquor-licensing rules and the other involving status and benefits for app-based drivers — each improperly mix unrelated subjects.
A similar relatedness challenge for the other potential ballot question, which seeks to cap dental insurer profits, came before the SJC Monday.
Before all talk of the U.S. Supreme Court became about the bombshell leak and the future of Roe v. Wade, the high court on Monday ruled 9-0 that the City of Boston violated the First Amendment in not agreeing to raise what city resident Harold Shurtleff described as the Christian flag.
The 2017 denial was the first time the city refused a request to fly a specific flag, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion that held Boston’s flag-raising program is not a form of government speech, so a denial based on religious viewpoint was discriminatory.
Breyer also took a moment to consider what he described as the somewhat controversial design of the brutalist, blocky City Hall building itself.
He both noted that late 1960s critics said the concrete structure “articulates its functions” with “strength, dignity, grace, and even glamor” … and then linked to the 2008 Boston Herald story on it being named the world’s ugliest building.