Recap and analysis of the week in state government
JUNE 17, 2022…..It didn’t come down to persuasive TV ads, high-profile endorsements, Big Tech money, the strength of organized labor or a vote one way or the other.
Instead, what ultimately brought an end to the costly and contentious ballot campaign around the employment status of drivers for platforms like Uber and DoorDash was — to borrow a phrase from Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker’s ruling — “a separate, significant policy decision that has been obscured by murky language.”
The SJC spiked the driver-benefits question from November’s ballot, finding that because the proposal also contained “confusingly vague and open-ended provisions” about the companies’ potential liability to someone injured by a driver, it failed a constitutional requirement that ballot questions contain only related or mutually dependent policies.
While voters won’t be weighing in this fall, neither the backers of the question nor its opponents sound ready fully to stand down. Pending legislation on Beacon Hill and Attorney General Maura Healey’s 2020 lawsuit alleging Uber and Lyft violate labor laws by treating their drivers as independent contractors could give them another battleground or two.
If the Supreme Judicial Court had a relatedness standard to live up to like ballot questions do, it would have met that bar this week. Sticking with a theme, the high court also issued relatedness rulings on initiative petitions seeking to change the state’s liquor-licensing rules and impose new requirements on dental insurers’ spending, clearing both to continue their path to the ballot.
The court stopped short of making it fully Ballot Question Week, leaving for a future date its pending decision on Healey’s summary of a proposed constitutional amendment imposing a surtax on incomes over $1 million.
With one bruising ballot campaign now off the table, another one could be newly taking shape. This one’s also about drivers, or at least the licensing of them.
Over objections from Gov. Charlie Baker, legislators last week put a new law on the books making immigrants without legal status eligible for driver’s licenses, starting in July 2023.
While legislative Democrats celebrated their veto override and the years of work from advocates, opponents of the new policy took their first steps in a repeal effort.
To put a repeal question before voters in November, the referendum campaign will need signatures from more than 40,000 registered voters by Aug. 24 — a hefty lift, to be sure, but one that could get a boost from the GOP candidates for governor and great weather for signature-gathering.
Typically, if lawmakers’ timing imperils legislation, it’s because they acted too late — for instance, giving Baker the final say by not leaving enough room in the legislative calendar for an override vote. This case could be something of a reversal: if they overrode Baker’s veto of the license bill later this summer, it would have given opponents less time to gather their repeal signatures.
The news wasn’t good this week for anyone who relies on trains as an alternative to driving.
The MBTA, starting on Monday, is slashing weekday service on its Red, Orange and Blue Lines through the summer, leaving longer gaps between trains in response to a staffing shortage flagged by federal officials.
The Federal Transit Administration is still working on its broader probe of the T, but has already found enough cause for concern to order immediate corrective action addressing problems like insufficient control center staffing, lapsed certifications and delayed maintenance.
An infrastructure bond bill advanced out of committee, still without the language Baker and Congressman Richard Neal are seeking to create a new public authority to oversee rail expansion into Western Massachusetts.
Calling an East-West Rail authority “very premature,” Speaker Ron Mariano said state lawmakers need more information before they move ahead.
It turns out lawmakers — at least the House ones — also aren’t ready to move on another Baker ask.
Representatives on the Economic Development Committee put forward a new, smaller version of Baker’s jobs and downtown revitalization bill, stripping out the $2.3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money the governor proposed spending, and instead just calling for about $1.2 billion in borrowing.
Baker has said supply chain constraints and the general complexities around construction planning mean cities and towns need to get their projects in the pipeline as soon as possible, or risk running up against the 2024 and 2026 deadlines for committing and spending ARPA funds.
The committee’s Senate members were “not prepared” to eliminate the ARPA money from the bill but wanted to keep the bill moving, so did not vote yes or no on the bill, co-chair Sen. Eric Lesser said.
But, somewhere in the State House’s back channels, there’s another ARPA spending plan in the works.
“I was under the assumption that the chairman of Ways and Means in the House and the chairman of Ways and Means in the Senate were negotiating three things: the budget, the expenditure of ARPA money, and the expenditure of the surplus money,” Mariano said Wednesday.
Only one of those things — the fiscal 2023 budget — is formally before a conference committee, and the other two haven’t even hit the floor in either branch.
Whenever those bills, in whatever form, do surface, it looks like Rep. Maria Robinson will still be around to vote for them. As long as it’s this session.
Last fall, it was widely expected that the Framingham Democrat was headed for the exits after President Biden in September announced her as his pick to serve as assistant secretary of energy in the Office of Electricity. It was seen as such a sure thing that her House colleagues carved up her district when they drew new legislative maps in 2021, and Robinson this year did not file for reelection.
But Robinson’s nomination lingered, and then languished. Pointed questions at a February hearing turned into a postponed vote in March, and then a deadlocked committee in May.
Rather than setting up another potential situation where Vice President Kamala Harris would need to break a tie to confirm a Bay Stater over Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate — as was the case with U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins — Biden withdrew Robinson’s nomination last week.
That now leaves just Rep. Jim Kelcourse in the will-they-or-won’t-they confirmation hot seat.
Kelcourse, Baker’s nominee for a seat on the Parole Board, appeared before the Governor’s Council Wednesday for a hearing where councilors drilled into his lack of social-sciences experience and his motivation for making the move.
The Legislature, as it often does, had deadlines on its mind this week.
The House and Senate on Monday agreed to set this year’s sales tax holiday weekend for Aug. 13 and 14, making their pick two days before the June 15 cutoff when the scheduling power flips over to the Baker administration.
And with the Sept. 6 primary inching closer, lawmakers on Thursday sent Baker a compromise voting reform package that enshrines mail-in and expanded early voting options into state law.
Also landing on Baker’s desk was the annual Chapter 90 bill funding local road and bridge repairs, this year featuring another $150 million in grants for other transportation-related projects.
A $5 billion borrowing bill financing maintenance at state buildings and other government infrastructure needs could soon make its way to the governor as well, depending on how quickly the House and Senate agree on a final version.
Once it does, the big question will be what Baker will do with language calling for a five-year moratorium on prison and jail construction in Massachusetts. Legislative supporters describe the pause as a way to build on the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law and renew focus on treatment and services over incarceration, but administration officials say it would hinder efforts to upgrade aging facilities and evolve alongside the needs of the incarcerated population.
“This Senate knows that mental health and addiction treatment in alternative settings has proven to be much more effective, rehabilitation in alternative settings, not to mention less expensive,” Sen. Jo Comerford said as the Senate took up the bond bill and moratorium Thursday.
Mental health was the focus down the hall in the House, where representatives unanimously passed a bill that looks to beef up school-based behavioral health services, avoid long stays in the emergency room for patients awaiting psychiatric beds, and otherwise make it easier for people to access needed care.
The bill is the House’s answer — or “complement,” as top Democrats in that branch have been describing it — to a mental health bill the Senate passed in November.
As the July 31 end of formal legislative sessions end, bills start to fall into a handful of categories, with different likelihoods of getting over the finish line. The House’s Thursday vote moves mental health legislation out of the no-man’s-land where bills passed by one branch but not the other dwell and into a more optimistic space where striking a deal has a formal spot on the to-do list.
Still in that first, cloudier realm are a pair of other health care bills — the Senate’s drug cost and transparency bill from February and the hospital expansion oversight bill that cleared the House last November.
Another class of bills is the ones that the governor really, really wants but that haven’t stirred the same level of passion in the Democrats who control the Legislature. Chief among those is Baker’s “dangerousness” bill that would make it easier for police and the courts to detain defendants deemed a risk to the community, still ensconced in the Judiciary Committee.
“Well, everything’s going through the process,” Mariano said Monday. “We have looked at some of the dangerousness issues that the governor raised, and we’re making some decisions.”