July 30, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Someone has to be the thimble

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

THAT'S A WRAP: Rep. Mark Cusack and Sens. Pat Jehlen, Will Brownsberger, and Jason Lewis shared a laugh before the marijuana bill was signed into law Friday. With formal sessions wrapped up until after Labor Day, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg on Thursday afternoon told members they were free to leave and wished them "a very happy and healthy summer."

Recap and analysis of the week in local, state and federal government
from State House News Service and Sun research.

BOSTON — Do not pass go, but do collect $200 million.

That was the message from Democrats on Beacon Hill to Gov. Charlie Baker last week, marking what amounts to the most significant, if not the first, major policy dust-up between the Kumbaya Caucus of Three at the State House.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, threw a brushback pitch when — in a mere matter of days after Baker signed the fiscal 2018 budget — they went along with Baker’s request for a swift public hearing on his proposed MassHealth eligibility reforms.

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo

But the court officers barely had time to lock the doors and shut the lights out in Gardner Auditorium when word trickled out that the Legislature would vote the next day to rebuff the governor and his call for Medicaid reforms to be packaged with new fees and fines on employers to pay for health insurance for the low-income and disabled.

The Democratic leadership decided reform can wait, but the revenues cannot. And so both branches voted overwhelmingly, and for the second time, to send Baker new employer assessments, deemed taxes by many critics, to pay for MassHealth without the administration and business community’s desired cost-saving measures.

“I’ll take a look at it when it gets to my desk and then we’ll make a decision and I’ll be sure to let you know when we make that decision,” Baker said Thursday after the dust had settled, knowing he has three choices.

Baker can sign the assessments and risk alienating the business community; veto the bill and force lawmakers to override, for which they have the votes; or let the assessments become law in protest without his signature after 10 days.

Option two would force DeLeo and Rosenberg to decided whether they must call members back from the August recess, which began Friday, to override or wait until after Labor Day in contradiction of their assertions last week that the assessments need to be implemented immediately if the state is to collect the money it is counting on for the fiscal 2018 budget.

The polite game of chicken unfolded as U.S. Senate Republicans tried — and ultimately failed — to muster 50 votes to repeal and replace, repeal, or “skinny repeal” Obamacare. After overcoming the odds to proceed to a debate on health care, it seemed all week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t care what bill he could pass, as long as he could pass something.

In the end, he couldn’t. Sen. John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, dramatically slammed the door on repeal-and-replace efforts when he joined two other Republicans in the wee hours Friday morning voting against a repeal measure intended to move the Senate into negotiations with the House.

McCain said it was time for Republicans and Democrats to work together and listen to the country’s governors about how best to fix the healthcare system, which should be music to the ears of governors like Baker.

The soap opera in Washington, D.C., was not lost on state policymakers. While some Democrats tried to link Baker’s MassHealth reforms to unpopular Republican healthcare positions in Congress, Massachusetts House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez worried about plunging into MassHealth reform at home, knowing the complete disruption of the marketplace “could be one Tweet away.”

“This is not the end of our healthcare debate,” Sanchez said as criticism was expressed over Baker’s plan to move 140,000 MassHealth enrollees on to subsidized commercial plans with higher out-of-pocket costs.

The Gentlelady from Ashland took her own turn in the spotlight at Tuesday’s hearing when she was anything but gentle. Senate Ways and Means Chairperson Karen Spilka came ready to tango with with the administration’s trio of secretaries sent to defend and advocate for Baker’s plans to reform MassHealth.

Spilka made clear she believed the administration did not have “a monopoly on the ideas that are out there on healthcare,” and asked panel after panel to submit their own recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the coming weeks and months.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Sen. Karen Spilka had harsh words for the Baker administration’s healthcare reform stance.

“This is an ongoing issue and there are other ways to go about savings, rather than necessarily moving people off of MassHealth,” Spilka said.

Building consensus for healthcare changes in Massachusetts, as in Washington, may be a difficult task, but the governor and legislative leaders were on the same page last week when it came time to finalize marijuana oversight and protections for pregnant workers.

Baker signed both bills upon his return from a political trip to Colorado, and in doing so helped cement the two biggest legislative achievements of the year outside of pay raises for public officials, which Baker opposed, and an annual state budget.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Holiday for legislators, but likely not for sales tax
  • Warren, Markey and Healey on Senate healthcare vote
  • Watch: Baker signs long-awaited marijuana law
  • Cape legislators urge restoration of LGBTQ budget priorities
  • Ice Bucket Challenge will soon be state holiday


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