A look at the past week in state government
MAY 20, 2022…..If you were wondering when the Legislature would lurch into the last leg of its two-year lawmaking session, the rapidly increasing number of bills in play is a pretty good indication that busy season has already arrived.
It might seem counterintuitive that advancing legislation lengthens rather than shortens the to-do list atop Beacon Hill, but thousands of bills never see the light of day beyond a perfunctory committee hearing. Once something hits the floor for a vote, it becomes tangible, and so grows the pressure to close it out.
Now in the mix with 10 weeks remaining before the traditional end of formal business is a $5 billion bond bill that would fund investments in government infrastructure, primarily decades-old state buildings.
While the original legislation came from Gov. Charlie Baker, he may not be so keen on a change the House made that would order a five-year pause of any construction or expansion of correctional facilities. The moratorium would upend the administration’s still-unfolding exploration of a new women’s prison in Norfolk, and if Baker decides he wants to keep that option open by vetoing the language, lawmakers would need to leave themselves enough time for an override, an option they haven’t always protected despite their supermajorities.
“The House passed the prison moratorium today! This stops the proposed new women’s prison,” Rep. Christine Barber, a Somerville Democrat, tweeted on Thursday. “We need to invest in mental health supports, substance use treatment & housing, not jails.”
Of course, the House would need to get the Senate to go along and, you know, pass a moratorium law before any prison proposals will face an actual legal obstacle.
The Legislature made quick work of one lingering item — which also appears likely to draw a veto — this week when a conference committee (did they even meet?) took only a few hours to produce a final bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.
And yet even in a week that saw one conference committee wrap up, the total number of bills in those closed-doors negotiations actually increased compared to last week, with another new panel tapped to iron out House-Senate differences when it comes to legalizing sports wagering.
How much success House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka can claim this session will hinge in large part on what their deputies can steer through the conference committee bottleneck.
Excluding two committees that appear all but defunct, four major issues are tied up in the negotiation process: sports betting, energy and climate, soldiers’ home reforms and an election system overhaul. A conference to finalize the fiscal 2023 budget is all but inevitable, not to mention the multibillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs bills yet to emerge for a vote, both of which will probably evolve as they bounce between branches.
Another conference committee could be inbound as soon as next week now that both chambers have voted in favor of a suite of regulatory changes aimed at the cannabis industry.
With only two representatives in dissent, the House approved legislation whose measures — including a process to open “pot cafes” and to boost participation in the field from populations disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs — are aimed more at enriching the nascent industry that voters legalized in 2016 than at limiting its scope.
A legislative panel came close to wrapping up its work this week, too, but its ending is more of a whimper than a bang.
The Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Study Commission appears likely to offer just two minor recommendations and make no broader proposal for legislation or executive action to help keep the state’s unemployment system solvent.
After about a year of study prompted by a pandemic-era surge of joblessness that drained the system and ratcheted up costs on employers, business groups, organized labor representatives and Democrat lawmakers on the panel could not agree on other reforms, including the chairs’ call to adjust and index the wage base used to execute unemployment insurance assesments and reduce the experience rating table over time.
That might put a dent in the chances of unemployment trust fund reforms climbing up the legislative to-do list in the next two and a half months.
Amid the increasingly chaotic shuffle, Baker claims he is not yet anxious about his top priorities for his final year in office getting overlooked.
“The end of the session is always a crush,” he said Monday. “In 2018 and 2016, which were election years for us or them or both, we had a lot on the plate heading into the last 90 days and it’s hard to say how this will all play out, but some years we got almost everything.”
The Republican governor, who had a brief illness this week but resumed in-person public events after testing negative for COVID-19, rolled another big idea onto the table: spending $1.7 billion of the state’s booming tax revenues right away.
His latest supplemental budget calls for investments in water and sewer infrastructure, higher education campuses, building out ports to support the offshore wind industry and more, and it also presses once again on Democrats to do something here and now with an unprecedented flood of taxpayer cash.
Baker wants to spend quickly, worried about a potential economic downturn on the horizon, particularly amid surging inflation. But in the meantime, tax revenues continue to, as Baker put it, “soar wildly past any projections anybody had at the start of the year.”
The astonishing April haul prompted the administration on Wednesday to upgrade its fiscal 2022 outlook for the third time, pushing it up to a $37.666 billion projection that stands a full $7.5 billion above the original estimate crafted less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Beacon Hill is already sitting atop more than $2 billion in unspent federal emergency aid and is well on its way to ending a second successive year with a stunning tax surplus.
There won’t be any complaints among sitting lawmakers seeking another term, who can avoid being asked on the campaign trail to offer austere visions to right the ship, even if they continue to keep popular tax relief proposals on ice.
Legislative season isn’t the only one shifting into higher gear. Candidates up and down the ballot have been descending on local election offices and Secretary of State William Galvin’s office to file nomination papers, and political power players are increasingly forming ranks behind their selected options.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty is looking to support from current and past lawmakers to boost his chances against former Rep. Geoff Diehl, while a super PAC could create headaches in the Democratic primary for attorney general.
Outgoing Auditor Suzanne Bump took the somewhat rare step of wading into the Democratic primary to succeed her, backing transportation advocate Chris Dempsey.
Bump did not stop at praising Dempsey, though. She was more pointed than a typical intraparty endorsement, poking at fellow auditor hopeful Sen. Diana DiZoglio while insinuating that the Methuen Democrat did not understand where the lines around the office’s powers are drawn.
“Chris’s personal integrity means that every audit will represent a tool to improve state government, not a weapon to take down an individual or institution or grab a gratuitous headline,” Bump said in a letter attempting to whip Democrat delegates in Dempsey’s favor.