On Beacon Hill: Vienna sausage making, the State House way

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

BOSTON — The Legislature continued the budget process for “Fiscal Year Two Thousand and … Infinity” this past week — well, half the Legislature.

A budget document unveiled when President Trump’s approval rating exceeded his disapproval rating sauntered through its eighth month, still not truly final, as the House replaced $275 million of the $360 million in vetoes Gov. Baker made in July.

The next step in the saga must be taken by the Senate.

The hangup for now is that there’s a rhythm to legislation and, as fortune would have it, that rhythm is the same as a Viennese waltz: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. … And the third step of the override process was paused for the moment, as senators awaited the return of their leader from Austria and the Czech Republic.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg was in Europe — a development that first surfaced publicly when his staff said he wouldn’t be at the weekly leadership meeting Monday with Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and would phone in for the session. He did.

The president, normally quite eager to share the details of his public schedule, made no mentions of his planned sojourn.

State House News Service file

Senate President Stan Rosenberg

His travels through Vienna, Graz and Prague were underwritten by the United Nations Association of Austria, the city of Graz and the Senate Presidents Forum, which collects money from corporations such as Coca-Cola, Pfizer and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and passes it on to presidents in the form of grants for such policy and cultural forays.

Thomas Finneran, late of the Massachusetts House speakership, is on staff as moderator of Forum discussions — a role he filled during the Central Europe sessions, said Rosenberg’s spokesman.

And so the Senate, eager as it may be to restore spending after senators decried vetoes as severe and unnecessary, extended its six-week summer formal-session hiatus. The vetoes may be taken up the last week of the month, after the autumnal equinox.

The 62 overrides processed in the House chamber covered statewide programs and accounts, and Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez said another batch, addressing local needs and services, is forthcoming. [See video below.]

Republicans said the Senate should in fact be in no rush to follow the House’s lead. With state leaders mired in a years-long inability to accurately project tax revenues and then keep spending within actual receipts, GOP representatives said both branches should wait at least another month, preferably two, to see if the overrides are affordable.

For their part, the Baker administration said there was “no basis” to restore spending now, given revenue performance so far.

But Sanchez, speaking for the Democrats, said a conservative approach was already baked into the budget that landed on Baker’s desk in July — that $400 million had been removed from the bottom line before Baker saw it. The spending restorations are sustainable, he assured.

By much more than the necessary two-thirds, Sanchez and his boss Speaker DeLeo had the votes.

For much of Wednesday, House members sat chattering and nattering and fiddling with their digital devices, punctuated by the sonorous reading of one veto after another from the podium. Which items would come up and receive a “yes” vote had been decided in secret over the past eight weeks, so there was no debate.

One by one, with nary a decrease in din, representatives added money back to the commonwealth’s fiscal 2018 bottom line — the scoreboard glowing green on its leftward Democratic side, and more or less solid red on the Republican.

And while wiseguys needed both eyebrows this week — one to raise over Rosenberg’s trip, and the other over the prudence of budget regrowth — the people actually affected by the line items — people hoping to keep their apartments or their jobs — likely breathed a sigh of relief. Or half a sigh, anyhow, if that’s possible.

And by the way? If those real people avoid the hit, they won’t begrudge Rosenberg some late-summer Transatlantic meandering.

— Craig Sandler

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Minimum wage, renewable energy, online Lottery on tap
  • McGovern on health care, Warren on veterans, Polito on bike trail
  • Senators begin joint talks on language learning bill with rebuke of past efforts
  • Watch: DeLeo, Sanchez on budget veto overrides
  • Framingham contractor fined $167,500 for shoddy Worcester Airport work

On Beacon Hill: Mr. Baker goes to Washington

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

BOSTON — With his purple tie knotted tightly, Gov. Charlie Baker flew to Washington, D.C., last week hoping to bring his brand of bipartisanship to the polarized capital. Few might have predicted, however, that the colors in Washington were already starting to bleed.

Ostensibly, the state Legislature and Congress both returned to work from a summer recess, but it was the gridlocked Congress — with an assist from President Donald Trump — that would make the breakthrough.

As state legislators eased into their post-Labor Day schedule (and that’s being generous), Trump struck a debt-ceiling deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to fund the government for three months and deliver billions in relief funding for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Trump’s shunning of Republican Congressional leaders to make a deal with the Democrats rattled Washington and seemed to put wind in the sails of the White House as it prepared to deal with Irma, another catastrophic hurricane poised to strike South Florida on Sunday.

The debt ceiling deal also distracted, if only for a fleeting moment, from the storm the president stirred up with his decision to phase out the immigration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

The program, created by former President Barack Obama through executive order, allowed the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally by their parents when they were minors, to apply for protected status that would allow them to go to school and work without fear of deportation.

Trump, through his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, challenged Congress over the next six months to enshrine DACA into law if its members want it preserved, while Democrats and many Republicans, including Gov. Baker, derided the move as a cold-hearted play for the conservative base that would send immigrants in the United States, through no fault of their own, back into hiding.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined yet another multi-state lawsuit against the Trump administration to block the decision to end DACA, while advocacy groups rallied at the State House and around Boston seeking leadership from the state to protect the futures of the Dreamers.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

It was in this atmosphere that Baker joined his fellow governors from Tennessee, Montana, Colorado and Utah in testifying before the Senate Health Committee [see video below] on steps Congress could take to stabilize Obamacare health insurance markets in the wake of failed efforts to repeal the law.

Baker and the bipartisan cohort of governors told the Senate panel, headed by Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, that the single biggest thing they could do would be to ensure at least two years of funding for cost-sharing-reduction payments.

The CSR payments, used to keep patients’ out-of-pocket expenses down, were a part of the Affordable Care Act, but have been challenged in court by Republicans and dangled by Trump as a lever he could pull to force the collapse of Obamacare.

“I think it would be a bad idea,” Baker told U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren about Trump’s threat, responding to a softball lobbed across the plate by Massachusetts’ senior senator in what sounded like a coordinated back-and-forth designed to bloody the president.

Baker sat in the middle of the five governors as the de facto leader of the pack. He was given ample time to wonk out on healthcare policy, and just enough time to score some political points back home.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Hoffman, pot czar, on July 2018 deadline
  • McGovern and Chandler on DACA, Markey on North Korea
  • Worcester’s Grabauskas returns to MBTA
  • Watch: Baker a key part of healthcare reform testimony
  • Still-lagging tax revenues leave budget veto overrides in limbo

On Beacon Hill: Rain, rain go away — time for legislators to make some hay

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

BOSTON — As Hurricane Harvey stalled and Irma churned, Massachusetts wondered what if — as in what if 50 inches of rain fell in the Hub and Boston literally turned into a city on a hill.

“If we got hit with a storm like this, if Harvey hit Boston Harbor, we’re wiped out as a city,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh predicted.

But as with many things that come with price tags in the billions, decisions about how to deal with the hypothetical are often pushed off for another day. State House News Service is now taking bets on what will get built first, South Coast rail or a harbor hurricane barrier wall?

As the final days of summer peeled off the calendar, the best Bay Staters could do for now was raid their pantries and wallets, and offer a helping hand in Houston where floodwaters decimated many parts of that city in a disaster that experts say will be felt for years to come.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency offered up three firefighting teams trained in water rescues, while a Beverly-based FEMA task force of first responders was already on the ground in Texas.

With one eye on Houston, the run-up to the long Labor Day weekend meant it was time for lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general and the treasurer to finish their summer homework assignments before the first class bells have all been rung.

Senators wrapped up a series of dialogues they’ve been holding in anticipation of writing a healthcare cost control bill this fall, while Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Attorney General Maura Healey and Gov. Charlie Baker met an end-of-August deadline to make appointments to the new Cannabis Control Commission.

Despite whispers of the difficulties in finding commissioners who match the legal qualifications and are willing to work for the prescribed salaries, now former state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan — who was named by Baker last week to the “Triple C” — has company.

Pixabay

The Cannabis Control Commission is finally in full bloom.

Goldberg turned to former Bain & Company partner Steve Hoffman to chair the pot panel, and Healey named a former assistant attorney general, Britte McBride, as her pick. Together the three elected officials rounded out the board with former deputy general counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Kay Doyle and Shaleen Title, co-founder of cannabis recruiting firm THC Staffing Group.

Title, who helped write Question 4 in 2016, finds herself outnumbered by marijuana legalization opponents four to one, perhaps a predictable outcome given the public positions of officials charged with picking the board.

Hoffman, who is now retired, will pull down a $160,000 salary as chair, while the other four will earn $120,000 a year for five years as they work to turn the legal pot industry from seed to plant by next summer and keep it blooming in the years to come.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Back-to-school means back to work for Legislature
  • Baker draws fire from gubernatorial challenger
  • Warren on #DeVosWatch, Chandler goes back to school
  • State college savings program on tap for East Middle in limbo

On Beacon Hill: Out of the shadow

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

BOSTON — When the stars align, sometimes the unexpected can happen.

The summer continued to serve up surprises as the sun went into hiding, a new multi-millionaire was made and career doors for past and present figures of the Massachusetts political-scape continued to open and close.

Former Mass. Lottery director and Mitt Romney aide Beth Lindstrom got last week started as she officially entered the U.S. Senate field as one of four Republicans now angling for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, while state Rep. Susannah Whipps threw everyone a curveball Tuesday when she announced the Republican Party was no longer for her.

Whipps, in something Beacon Hill has not seen in a long time, posted a statement on her website detailing reasons the Athol resident’s decision to unenroll from the GOP, including the overwhelmingly independent makeup of the electorate in her Western Massachusetts district.

What truly motivated Whipps to leave the party remains somewhat of a mystery, as she declined comment beyond her written statement. And despite voting against the small Republican bloc in the House this session on several key issues, she didn’t pick a fight on her way out as she said she hopes to work closely with both parties in the future.

Whipps might well be the first unenrolled elected official in the Legislature since Lawrence’s Willy Lantigua (before he became a Democrat), and now party leaders will have to figure out where she fits into a party-dictated committee and leadership structure.

But the afterglow of the eclipse and curiosity of Whipps’ decision quickly gave way to Powerball fever and the realization that one Bay Stater had beaten the 1-in-292,201,338 odds.

Mavis Wanczyk, the 53-year-old holder of the $758.7 million winning Powerball ticket did what every hopeful lottery player says they’ll do should they strike it rich — quit their job. Immediately.

Wanczyk worked her last graveyard shift at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield on Tuesday night, telling her bosses the next day not to expect her back after she became the largest lottery winner in Massachusetts history.

The Chicopee resident wasted little time coming forward to collect her prize, hoping to turn the spotlight off as soon as possible so, as she put it, she could go home and “hide in bed” while she figures out what to do with her overnight wealth.

Wanczyk wasn’t the only big winner from the Powerball jackpot.

State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and others pointed out that the state will do pretty nicely as well, taking home $25 million in income taxes that could have gone to another state had the winning ticket not have been printed here.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Marijuana and health care among immediate priorities
  • McGovern on Trump and Afghanistan, Warren on big banks
  • Eldridge says he’ll pass on Tsongas Capitol Hill seat
  • Watch: DeLeo on what’s next for Legislature
  • Baker taps Leominster senator for state pot panel
Charlie Baker

On Beacon Hill: Free, but not welcome, speech

Baker selfie

State House News Service/Sam Doran

Gov. Charlie Baker takes a selfie with Pete Frates after signing the “Ice Bucket Challenge Week” law.

 


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

It would be virtually impossible to so quickly forget the racial violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend, but political leaders at all levels of government this week were preoccupied with making sure they would not be condemned to a repeat of it.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in particular, were joined at the hip for much of the week as they united in press conferences, op/eds and safety meetings to condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis and make it clear how they felt about a “Free Speech” rally planned for yesterday by conservative groups for Boston Common.

Baker and the Legislature also partnered Thursday to pass a resolution and sign a  proclamation denouncing white supremacy that they planned to send to the White House, the Virginia governor and the mayor of Charlottesville.

Coming on the heels of the Charlottesville protests, organizers of the Boston rally said they don’t support white nationalism, but a controversial list of speakers and the potential to draw unsavory elements had police and public officials on edge heading into yesterday.

The fears were not realized as counter-protestors vastly outnumbered those attending the rally. Boston Police reported 33 arrests, according to reports.

“99.9 percent of the people here were here for the right reason, and that is to fight bigotry and hate,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said.

The First Amendment being what it is, the city issued a permit for the event that drew thousands of counter-protesters. Officials hoped for the best while planning for the worst.

Charlie Baker

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker said that “there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia.”

“As governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I want to be clear that there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia,” Baker said in one of several statements he made over the course of the week.

The governor’s rhetoric seemed to escalate in intensity as the days wore on and a furor grew over President Trump’s response to the violence. Eyes in Massachusetts turned to him for moral leadership, or at least an indication of where he fell on the spectrum.

Trump, of course, condemned the violence, but with great emphasis took the position that “both sides” were to blame for the confrontation that led to the death of Heather Heyer in Virginia.

In comments made during a combative press conference criticized for giving comfort to racism, Trump chose to also blame the “alt-left” that showed up to protest the gathering of white supremacists who marched, ostensibly, in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Baker’s condemnation of Trump’s response went from deep disappointment to something more, and earned him a shout out from the head of the Democratic Governor’s Association — Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy — who challenged the GOP in his own state to follow Baker’s lead.

“His offensive rhetoric and failure to condemn white supremacy in Charlottesville highlights a failure of the Trump administration to properly address issues that matter to people of color and promote unity and tolerance across our nation,” Baker would say.

The challenge of confronting this country’s racial history is not relegated to places like Charlottesville or communities in the South, either.

While grounds of public parks like those at the State House may be dotted with statues of J.F.K. and Horace Mann instead of General Lee, the city of Boston has its own ugly history of racism to contend with and that also came to the fore this week.

Red Sox owner John Henry said the team was ready to make a push to rename Yawkey Way, and House Majority Whip Byron Rushing has filed legislation to take the Yawkey name off the commuter rail station in the Fens.

Tom Yawkey, of course, was the longtime owner of the Boston Red Sox. He was a philanthropist and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also, according to many reports, racist toward black ballplayers and a major reason why the hometown nine were the last team in Major League League Baseball to integrate in 1959.

Walsh made some vaguely supportive comments of Henry’s call for renaming the street that runs alongside Fenway Park, but on Friday he brushed aside questions on the topic suggesting it should be left for another day to discuss.

–Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • McGovern on Bannon, Healey on offshore drilling
  • Video: Bipartisan support for denouncing white nationalists
  • Deadline looms for low license plate lottery
  • Plainridge has huge month
  • State touts new crime-fighting, homeland security division
  • New MBTA head hired
  • Moving ahead on student assessments despite funding shortfall
Charlie Baker

In wake of Virginia violence, officials leery of Saturday “free speech” rally [with video]

Charlie Baker

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker said that “there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia.”

State and city officials denounced the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend and pledged to keep Boston safe during a planned rally this Saturday, while acknowledging they know very little about the event or its organizers.

With an event billed as a “free speech rally” planned for Boston Common on Saturday, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh on Monday said he discourages the organizers from coming to the city while the “emotion and the wound and the pain are very fresh” after three people died in Charlottesville.

“Don’t hand hatred a megaphone and pretend you can’t hear it,” Walsh said at a press conference on City Hall plaza surrounded by a diverse group of civic leaders. “Leaders call out hate and reject it before it becomes violence. That’s why we’re here today. That’s why this weekend myself and the governor spent nearly about 10 or 15 different phone calls talking about how do we reject hate in the commonwealth and the city of Boston.”

Niki Tsongas

On Beacon Hill: Something to talk about

National Conference of State Legislatures

Sam Doran/State House News Service

The House Chamber was packed on Monday with legislative clerks from around the world who visited Boston for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Participating in a mock parliamentary session, from left, were Nigerian legislative officer Ramatu Ahmad, Ladi Hamalai of Nigeria’s Institute for Legislative Studies, and Aisha Mohammed of Nigeria’s House of Representatives.


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

The summer of 2007 in the Merrimack Valley was a time for backyard “PicNikis” and evening gatherings to get the latest “Tscoop On Tsongas” over a cone of your favorite flavor.

U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas was mounting her first campaign for public office to succeed Marty Meehan — now the president of the University of Massachusetts system — in Congress, and the heat was on. Anything to get a crowd.

Fast-forward 10 years, and Tsongas found a different way to break the August monotony, announcing Wednesday that she would not be seeking a seventh full term to the U.S. House of Representatives. Just like that, Tsongas plugged the void of late summer on Beacon Hill, giving its denizens something to wag their tongues about.

Many state legislators spent the week shuttling between the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and the city’s varied landmarks, playing policy wonks by day and hosts with the most by night.

Legislative leaders wined and dined 6,000 of their colleagues from around the country at places like Fenway Park, the New England Aquarium and more as the National Conference of State Legislatures swept in and out of the city, leaving solid policy ideas, first impressions of Boston, and bar tabs in its wake.

But it was Tsongas — and more intriguingly, who might succeed her — that was the talk of the town.

Niki Tsongas

Niki Tsongas

Tsongas, in some ways, rode her famous last name to the halls of Capitol Hill. Her late husband, Paul Tsongas, held the same seat before being elected to the Senate and making a failed run for president in 1992.

But over the past decade, she made a name for herself. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Tsongas became a champion for veterans and, based on the accolades that poured in, a devotee to constituent services.

Given the rarity of open Congressional seats in Massachusetts, it would be political malfeasance for anyone who has ever harbored any ambition to go to Washington, D.C., to not at least think about what it would take to win the Tsongas seat next year. That’s probably why one needs more than two hands to count the number of elected, non-elected and former elected officials said to be weighing their options.

The list starts with the cast of characters who finished behind Tsongas in the 2007 special election Democratic primary. Sen. Eileen Donoghue, who finished second in that primary, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge and former Sen. Barry Finegold all said they are considering another run at the seat.

Massachusetts Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, also came in hot, quickly announcing that she was “eagerly exploring” the possibility of a campaign, and has been joined by 2014 lieutenant governor nominee Stephen Kerrigan; Meehan’s ex-wife and community hospital consultant Ellen Murphy Meehan; and City Hall “Boy Wonder” Dan Koh, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, whose well-known family hails from Andover.

The Third Congressional District, thanks in part to redistricting, will surely not be a solely Democratic affair, however. Republicans weighing a run, or looked to as possible candidates, include Mass Fiscal Alliance founder Rick Green, Sal’s Pizza founder Sal Lupoli and Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke.

Central Mass. cities and towns in the Third Congressional District include  Ashburnham, Berlin, Bolton, Clinton, Fitchburg, Gardner, Harvard, Lancaster, Lunenburg, Westminster and parts of Winchendon. Also, Ashby, Ayer, Dunstable, Groton, Hudson, Littleton, Marlborough, Shirley, Stow and Townsend.

It’s hard to say how quickly the field might come together, given the ample time Tsongas has afforded her would-be successors, but many of the elected politicians and someone like Koh will have to weigh a shot at a Congressional seat against giving up the office or job they now hold.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Senate hosts panel to discuss health-care cost containment
  • McGovern on North Korea; Chandler honored
  • Boston-area inflation hits 2.2 percent in the past year
  • Safety, profiling concerns swirl over immigrant detainer bill

On Beacon Hill: No detour for sales tax on Holiday Road

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

BOSTON — Hotel, motel, Chatham Bars Inn?

Turns out deciding where to holiday can be more complicated this time of year than choosing between the Cape, the Berkshires or Nantucket. It also means figuring out whether to go to Best Buy in Everett or Nashua, N.H.

Lawmakers slunk away from Beacon Hill without acting on bills that would have established a sales-tax-free weekend sometime this August.

No one said a word, but one might have guessed at that point that the decision had been made to forgo a sales tax holiday this summer for just the third time in the past 14 years. After a year of wringing their hands over disappointing tax collections, leaders are loath to give up a revenue source, even if it might mean cheaper school supplies for constituents and a boon for some small businesses.

Gov. Charlie Baker, however, didn’t seem to want to play that guessing game. And despite vetoing $320 million from the fiscal 2018 budget, he apparently feels a few million dollars lost in August can be overcome.

The governor filed a bill last Wednesday to make the weekend of Aug. 19-20 a sales tax holiday. Sure, he could have just issued a statement calling on the Legislature to return from its recess and pass one of the several tax holiday bills already filed this session, But he didn’t. He filed his own, and it was just about dead on arrival.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

House Speaker Robert DeLeo

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Baker’s decision to file legislation, especially in the first week of August, made “little sense,” and Rep. Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat and Revenue Committee chairman who views these tax holidays as little more than gimmicks, said what DeLeo seemed unwilling to.

Baker’s bill would not get through committee.

So why did Baker file it?

Well perhaps it was just coincidence, but it also came the same day Baker decided that he would sign off on $200 million in new fees and fines on employers to help pay for MassHealth without the reforms that he, and groups like the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, had been insisting on as part of a package.

Rather than force House and Senate Democrats to override a veto and deal with the story line all summer that he and the Legislature were at odds, the governor chose to do something he’s hoping won’t become famous last words.

“The Legislature told us they would work with us on this, and we’re going to take them at their word,” he said.

The National Federation of Independent Business said it was “incredibly disappointed” in Baker, but other business groups, including Associated Industries of Massachusetts, struck a more diplomatic tone.

“While this is certainly not the outcome we hoped for, we recognize that the governor’s decision is carefully considered and designed to achieve the ultimate, long-term goal of substantive MassHealth reform,” AIM President Rick Lord said.

Even with the olive branch from Baker, the retailers seem to have just about reached a breaking point. With the deadline arriving to file language to reserve a spot on the 2018 ballot, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts filed four possible ballot questions for next fall.

The group, frustrated by an inability to get what it wants through the legislative process, proposed lowering the sales tax from 6.25 percent to either 5 percent or 4.5 percent, and reserved their right to couple either proposal with an annual two-day sales tax holiday.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Legislators return, but not for legislating
  • Fiscal 2018 tax collections hit first-month benchmark
  • McGovern on ‘a better deal,’ Warren on improving GI Bill, Markey on Trump
  • Moore-sponsored disability protection bill gets public hearing
  • Baker makes choices for marijuana advisory panel

On Beacon Hill: Someone has to be the thimble

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

On Beacon Hill: Signed, sealed and delivered

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

BOSTON — A budget, a pot bill and a shuffle of House leadership. Teary goodbyes, promotions and demotions. Take a deep breath, it’s finally the weekend.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo opened the floodgates early last week when he announced he had chosen a successor to Brian Dempsey as Ways and Means chairman, though not necessarily a successor to DeLeo’s long-held speakership.

The call to the bullpen went to state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and the first Latino to hold the powerful position in the House. In time, and if history serves, Sánchez could one day become a contender for the throne, but for now he’s meeting staff and worrying about how to handle Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget vetoes — $320 million, to be exact.

Baker signed a $39.4 billion spending bill for fiscal 2018, striking $42 million in local earmarks and revising revenue projections downward by $749 million, below the mark  — 1.4 percent — legislators had agreed would be sufficient in light of sluggish growth over the past year.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

Perhaps most significantly, Baker returned a $200 million assessment on employers — his idea in the first place — with a summer reading assignment for lawmakers. The governor said he wanted the assessment, which many prefer to call a tax, packaged with reforms to MassHealth eligibility that were laid aside by legislative budget negotiators. And he wants it in the next 60 days.

How to proceed now will likely be decided by a triumvirate of DeLeo, Sanchez and Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, and they’ve scheduled hearings on the issues this week.

House members arrived at the State House Monday prepared to ratify Sánchez’s appointment to lead the budget-writing committee, and most seemed supportive of the selection. But Sánchez’s elevation meant a line of dominoes would fall behind him, and for at least one representative, the news wasn’t good.

Kocot, the gentle giant from Western Mass., took over the Health Care Financing Committee from Sánchez and will work together with the new budget chief to respond to Baker’s budget amendment on MassHealth.

Caught in the dust cloud of rotating chairpersons and newly minted vice-chairpersons, Rep. Russell Holmes, D-Mattapan, the immediate past chairman of the Black and Latino Caucus and vice-chairperson of the Housing Committee, found himself without his post in leadership.

Holmes had the temerity to suggest that with Dempsey gone, more liberal factions of the House should have a conversation about who the heir-apparent to DeLeo should be, and even prepare for a speakership fight in 2019.

That apparently did not sit well in the speaker’s office, and few were buying DeLeo’s insistence that Holmes’s demotion had nothing to do with his comments, but rather teamwork and chemistry.

Rather than quiet Holmes, the speaker’s punitive action only seemed to embolden the legislator as the week wore on. “If they believe that, then call me because I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell them,” Holmes said, incredulous about DeLeo’s explanation.

While representatives contemplated their place in the new House depth chart, the six House and Senate negotiators working on a pot law compromise retreated to the private confines of the Members Lounge for the last time to sign a deal that will raise the tax on retail marijuana to 20 percent and create a new structure for regulation and local control over pot stores.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Legal marijuana law awaits Baker signature
  • Chang-Diaz and Forry on pot, McGovern on #NoKidHungry, Healey on DACA
  • New Ways and Means chairperson pledges ‘thoughtful’ approach to MassHealth
  • Watch: DeLeo and Sánchez on historic chairmanship
  • Final tally: Tax revenues leave $431 million hole in fiscal 2017