Some call it building consensus and others see it as just plain old procrastination. It’s mid-July in an election year and in Massachusetts that means that some of the most important bills of the session are unfinished. Some are close to final passage while others, despite groundswells of support, are faltering. At this stage of the session, lawmakers are usually hashing out final compromises in conference committees, drawing from proposals approved in either branch. This year, due in part to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, many priority bills haven’t made it to the conference stages yet legislative leaders still believe they may coalesce around proposals. Here are nine bills to keep an eye on as lawmakers grind closer to the July 31 end of formal sessions for 2020.
1 — FISCAL 2021 BUDGET
BILL: H 2
HOUSE: The House has been in custody of Gov. Charlie Baker’s $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget for about six months. After opting against the usual April rewrite of the governor’s budget, the House gave itself a new July 1 deadline but that date also passed without a budget.
SENATE: Awaiting House action.
KEY PEOPLE: Gov. Charlie Baker, Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, Ways and Means Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues
NOTES: Gov. Charlie Baker filed his fiscal 2021 budget bill Jan. 22 and has not offered a new plan that factors in the fundamentally altered landscape marked by plummeting revenues and soaring unemployment. The House has also put a long hold on the budget and this month seemed to publicly try to lower expectations for the spending plan.
State government in July is running on an interim budget, and Baker has filed a second one-month budget to cover spending in August as July revenues are counted and the state waits for Congress to decide on a possible stimulus bill.
An agreement between the governor and Legislature over local aid funding for the year could be coming soon, while Rep. Smitty Pignatelli has said he thinks the Legislature will be called back to session in the fall to deal with a complete fiscal year 2021 budget. Unless there is some novel last-minute agreement, a fall session appears inevitable as the alternative would be to limp along on interim budgets for half the year and then take up the budget after the elections in January.
2 — POLICE REFORM
BILL(S): H 4794 (Baker), S 2820 (Senate), H 4860 (House)
HOUSE: Debate on H 4860 scheduled for July 22, possibly extending into a July 23 session.
SENATE: Approved its bill (S 2820) 30-7 at 4:12 a.m. July 14.
KEY PEOPLE: Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, Rep. Russell Holmes, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Rep. Claire Cronin, Sen. William Brownsberger, Sen. Michael Rodrigues, Sen. Sonia Chang-DÃaz
NOTES: The national backlash in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and anger over police brutality toward Black Americans forced an awakening on Beacon Hill marked by a commitment to pass police reform and accountability legislation by July 31. Gov. Charlie Baker collaborated with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on his police reform proposal (H 4794), filed June 17. The Legislature buried Baker’s bill in committee without a public hearing.
Mass. police chiefs criticize lawmakers on rushing police reform bills
The House and Senate differ on a few items such as how much the Legislature should curb qualified immunity for police officers from civil lawsuits. The issue became contentious during Senate debate and police unions have railed the upper chamber for going too far while the ACLU of Massachusetts said the House did not go far enough. The House took a scaled back approach, tying the court-made doctrine directly to the licensing process and revoking immunity in any case that results in the decertification of a police officer.
Lawmakers in both branches appear committed to banning the use of chokeholds by police and imposing a certification regime to hold police officers accountable in the same way that other licensed professionals are. The question here is whether lawmakers will let the perfect be the enemy of the good and can they settle differences amongst themselves and with Gov. Baker in the short window before them.
3 — HEALTH CARE
BILL(S): S 2796 (telehealth), S 2546 (mental health parity), S 2409 (drug pricing)
HOUSE: Health Care Financing on July 20 reported out a redraft of the telehealth bill; Mental health parity bill and drug pricing bill pending in House Ways and Means.
SENATE: Telehealth approved 38-0 on June 25; Mental health parity approved 38-0 on Feb. 13; Drug pricing approved 40-0 on Nov. 14, 2019.
KEY PEOPLE: Rep. Ronald Mariano, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Sen. Cindy Friedman, Rep. Daniel Cullinane, Sen. Julian Cyr
NOTES: Two years ago, the House and Senate each passed major health care bills, with proponents warning some community health hospitals might not survive, but a conference committee couldn’t agree on a bill. Now, the industry is buried in pandemic-related losses, but consumers, providers and the state are trying to agree on what lessons from the pandemic are worth baking into state law.
While it’s not the expansive approach Gov. Charlie Baker took when he filed his own health care bill, aimed at strengthening behavioral health and primary care, building on the policies tested by COVID-19 emergency orders could offer a path to agreement on an issue where House and Senate Democrats have long struggled to find common ground. Some consensus appears to be emerging around the idea of making telehealth more accessible — the House plans to vote this week on a telehealth bill, though its particulars differ from what the Senate approved. The House legislation also returns to the idea of bolstering cash-strapped community hospitals.
4 — TRANSPORTATION BOND/REVENUE
BILL(S): H 4530 (Taxes and fees to fund transportation); H 4547 / S 2836 (Transportation bond bill)
HOUSE: House approved its transportation revenue package 113-40 on March 4, followed by approval of its roughly $18 billion transportation bond bill 150-1 on March 5.
SENATE: Senate approved its $17.97 billion bond bill 36-4 on July 16. The House’s transportation revenue package has sat in Senate Ways and Means since March 9.
KEY PEOPLE: Sen. Joseph Boncore, Rep. William Straus, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Sen. Michael Rodrigues, Rep. Mark Cusack, Sen. Aaron Hinds
NOTES: The Senate does not plan to take up a House-approved package of transportation tax and fee increases this session and instead aims to fund planned infrastructure improvements strictly with borrowing. That’s the approach Gov. Charlie Baker was hoping for earlier this year, when lawmakers in both branches appeared ready to make an election-year push for hikes on the gas tax and other taxes and fees to address substandard public transit and congested roads.
Baker has filed his own proposal that’s primarily built on borrowing, and said in February that he was “disappointed” with core components of the House proposal. Legislators over the years have had no reservations about passing large bond bills, and the next step for the transportation bond is appointment of a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate infrastructure bills.
5 — INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY BOND
BILL(S): H 4733 / S 2819
HOUSE: Approved House version totaling about $1.7 billion by 149-7 vote on May 20.
SENATE: Senate version, totaling $1.7 billion, approved 38-0 on July 2.
SENT TO CONFERENCE: July 16
NUMBER OF DAYS IN CONFERENCE: Six
CONFEREES: Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Sen. Michael Rodrigues, Rep. Danielle Gregoire, Sen. Sal DiDomenico, Rep. David Vieira, Sen. Ryan Fattman
NOTES: Gov. Charlie Baker filed the initial bill (H 3687) on April 11, 2019. The Legislature burst into action on the year-old bill after COVID-19 hit Massachusetts and the pandemic put a spotlight on the importance of technological infrastructure as telecommuting, remote education, and virtual government meetings increased in frequency. Interbranch negotiators held their first meeting July 21 to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
6 — CLIMATE CHANGE
BILL(S): H 3997 (GreenWorks), S 2500 (net-zero/carbon pricing), S 2498 (electric vehicles), S 2499 (efficiency standards), H 3983 (2050 roadmap)
HOUSE: Approved House GreenWorks 158-0 on July 24, 2019; House referred the Senate’s net-zero carbon pricing, electric vehicles, and efficiency standards bills to House Ways and Means on Feb. 10.
SENATE: House GreenWorks bill has sat in Senate Bonding since July 29, 2019; Senate approved its trio of climate bills Jan. 30: net-zero/carbon pricing 36-2, electric vehicles 35-2, efficiency standards 35-2.
KEY PEOPLE: Rep. Thomas Golden, Sen. Michael Barrett, Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, Sen. Marc Pacheco, Speaker Robert DeLeo
NOTES: Earlier this year, Gov. Charlie Baker, Speaker Robert DeLeo, and President Karen Spilka all declared support for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the branches have not agreed on a legislative framework to get there. Both chairmen of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee reiterated in June that the Legislature must send a climate bill to Baker by year’s end.
Leaving giant carbon footprints: Average Sudbury person generates 9,700 pounds of greenhouse gases each year. In Dorchester, it’s only 2,227 pounds.
Advocates have been pushing for action on a Rep. Joan Meschino “roadmap to 2050” bill with the vocal support of some House lawmakers including Environment Co-Chair Rep. Smitty Pignatelli. This is another issue where members of both parties agree that something should be done but can’t agree on the details of how to transition more quickly to cleaner vehicles, buildings and energy, ways to pull the state off its long relationship with fossil fuels, and a commitment to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
7 — HOUSING
BILL(S): H 4263, Gov. Baker’s “Housing Choices” bill; S 2831, eviction and foreclosure moratorium extension; H 1316 and H 3924, rent control and tenant protection
HOUSE: Baker’s housing production bill has sat in House Ways and Means since Dec. 23, 2019; House concurred July 20 in referring evictions moratorium to Housing Committee; Rent control bills have sat since June 4 in House Steering, Policy and Scheduling after they were favorably reported by Housing Committee.
SENATE: Referred evictions moratorium to Housing Committee on July 16.
KEY PEOPLE: Rep. Kevin Honan, Sen. Brendan Crighton, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz
NOTES: The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the housing insecurity issues that were prevalent before the pandemic, when there was broad agreement that something needs to be done to address housing affordability and production. House and Senate Democrats have failed to roll out and advance their own housing plan, while also largely ignoring Gov. Charlie Baker’s frequent calls for his plan to make housing projects more likely to secure local approval. On evictions and foreclosures, Baker extended the moratorium 60 days beyond its expiration from Aug. 18 to Oct. 17.
Supporters still plan to push for legislation that would keep the moratorium in place until one year after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. When the Housing Committee favorably reported the duo of rent control bills, Sen. Brendan Crighton said “some of the finer details still need to be worked out.” Citing the shortening legislative timeline, Crighton said in May: “We’re dealing with unprecedented times here, and obviously, we’re getting into June soon. We felt like getting the bill out of committee rather than having it stuck there for a prolonged period of time made sense.”
8 — ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
BILL(S): H 4529 (Baker), H 4854 (Economic Development Committee)
HOUSE: Economic Development Committee reported new draft of Baker’s bill July 15, and the House sent the new version to House Bonding; House Bonding accepted written testimony on July 17.
SENATE: Sen. Diana DiZoglio said during a July 2 Senate session, “I know that this body is hard at work on an economic development bill and on other provisions that we’ll be taking up in the coming weeks.” Senate President Karen Spilka told the News Service on July 18 that the Senate was working on the economic development bill, but had to wait for the House to act first.
KEY PEOPLE: Rep. Antonio Cabral, Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Sen. Eric Lesser, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Sen. Michael Rodrigues
NOTES: Gov. Baker filed his jobs bill March 4, before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the local economy. Then he announced an update on June 26 in the form of a proposed $275 million COVID-19 recovery package. With unemployment above 17 percent and pillars of the local economy like health care and higher education shaken, the state could use any type of legislation to bring jobs back and get the economy back on track, as it was before the pandemic hit.
An economic development bill is seen by many lawmakers as something to highlight for voters as they leave Beacon Hill for the summer and focus more intently on their re-election efforts. Baker had tried to attach his Housing Choices zoning reforms to the jobs bill, but saw it stripped by committee.
9 — SEX EDUCATION
BILL(S): H 410 / S 2475, “Healthy Youth”
HOUSE: House bill reported favorably Feb. 20 by Education Committee and sent to Health Care Financing; Senate bill has sat in House Ways and Means since Jan. 23.
SENATE: Senate bill approved 33-2 on Jan. 16, based on a new draft of a Senate bill that cleared the Education Committee Nov. 14, 2019.
KEY PEOPLE: Speaker Robert DeLeo, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, Rep. James O’Day, Sen. Sal DiDomenico
NOTES: Similar bills have died in the House without a vote the last two sessions after receiving Senate approval. Speaker Robert DeLeo said last summer that the bill’s language has evolved and “it’s something, obviously, that I think will be on our radar to take a look at.” Rep. James O’Day has been a vocal supporter in the House along with former Rep. Paul Brodeur, who left the Legislature earlier this sessson to become mayor of Melrose.
… A late-breaking agreement between craft brewers and distributors could end a years-long fight over distribution … Following years of disagreement between credit unions and banks over their differing regulations, a bill is on the move to modernize the laws governing credit unions … The push to legalize sports betting resurfaced in late July when a Red Sox executive encouraged a House economic recovery panel to look at sports betting as an option for lessening the impact of pandemic-stricken revenues …
For bill texts and histories, visit the Legislature’s website: malegislature.gov.