On Beacon Hill: ‘Ambassadors of cannabis’ unite — kind of

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

BOSTON — ZAP! BUZZZZZZZZ! That was the sound of the Massachusetts House and Senate touching what for years has been considered a politically hazardous “third rail” subject: marijuana.

The Legislature did what it has refused to do for years last week — talk in public about the leafy green intoxicant — but only because voters forced Beacon Hill’s hand and did the hard part of legalizing cannabis on their own. For lawmakers who thought activists were just blowing smoke all these years, the events of recent days were a reminder that ultimately, the voters call the shots.

About a year before voters legalized marijuana themselves, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, explained why, to that point, only one senator had agreed to serve on a special committee to study marijuana and why Beacon Hill avoided the sticky-icky ganja.

“Drugs are a third-rail issue in politics, and you don’t want to associate with it publicly because just studying it is enough for people to say, ‘Oh, he must be in favor of it because he is studying it,’ and people just avoid drug-related stuff,” he said.

The sudden zeal to alter the law drew the ire of activists, and like birds of a feather, various pro-marijuana factions flocked outside the State House to rail against legislative tweaking last week. Hoping to up the public pressure on lawmakers, a ballot campaign official even deputized those in the hazy crowd as “ambassadors of cannabis” who swore an oath to lobby their elected officials.

Inside the State House, it was mostly silent on Wednesday morning, as both branches did the bulk of their work in the afternoon and evening hours.

By the time the House got to work, on the longest day of the year, reps did what everyone’s mother would have yelled at them for: They sat around inside all day. The House gaveled in Wednesday at 11:45 a.m., but the first of the 118 amendments filed to the pot bill wasn’t taken up until 5 p.m.

Away from the House chamber, leadership sorted through the amendments and often determined their fate — puff, puff, pass — as the reps who filed them were bouncing around the room and satisfying their munchies with Swedish Fish and Twizzlers.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

The Marijuana Policy Committee was co-chaired by Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

In the absence of real debate, some reps became restless.

Rep. Kate Campanale, a Republican from Leicester, tweeted Wednesday afternoon, “So we just sat around for about 30 minutes doing nothing, and then we were called to recess. So glad that this process is efficient …” She later deleted the tweet.

Eventually, at about 9:40 p.m., the House did vote — by a margin of 126-28 — to pass its marijuana law rewrite and hand it off for the Senate to take a hit.

When the Senate gaveled in shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday, the House was still bogarting the bill, giving it one final review.

“I know that we eagerly await the arrival of legislation relative to the control of the adult recreational use of marijuana in our chamber as it is being finally processed in the chamber down the hall,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said, interrupted by Rosenberg banging his gavel.

Rosenberg asked, “Did he say awaiting papers from the House so that the Senate chamber, we may consume marijuana in the Senate chamber?”

“Mr. President, I know that may have been wishful thinking on your part,” Tarr responded. “But that was not what I said.”

By noon, the Senate had begun working through the 111 amendments proposed and wrapped up its work Thursday night at about 9:15 p.m.with a 30-5 roll-call vote.

The reconstruction of a law passed by nearly 1.8 million Massachusetts voters will be finalized by just six lawmakers [see below] who are tasked with hashing out a pot law that’s built to last.

After delaying parts of the voter law for six months, legislative leaders tied themselves to a self-imposed June 30 deadline to get a marijuana bill to the governor’s desk. That committee will work under the pressure of that deadline, a watchful and vocal public, and Rosenberg’s promise that Gov. Charlie Baker is “gonna love the final product.”

The first question the conference will have to answer is whether they are going to keep the ballot law — Chapter 334 of the Acts of 2016 — as a skeleton and “amend and improve” it (as the Senate says its bill does), or are they going to repeal and replace the voter-backed law, which the House bill does.

The House’s 28 percent and the Senate’s 12 percent tax rates will likely be reconciled with the Goldilocks method — one’s too high, the other too low, so settle on something in that “just right” middle ground.

Working through the issue of local control may be a bit stickier for the committee. The Senate maintained the ballot law’s requirement that a city or town can only ban marijuana facilities by a town-wide referendum, but the House gave that power instead to local elected and appointed officials.

Their compromise bill will have to clear both branches one last time before going to Gov. Baker for his signature, or amendment.

— Colin A. Young

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Shrewsbury’s Kane on pivotal pot panel
  • Watch: Jehlen talks about Senate, House additions to marijuana bill
  • Gov. candidate says Dems ‘need new generation of leaders’
  • McGovern on White House press briefing ban; Markey on anatomy of Trumpcare
  • Senate poised to ban handheld cellphone use while driving

Baker poses $315M plan to help address crushing MassHealth burden

BOSTON — Employers would be counted on to pay $200 million more a year over the next two years to help pay for rising expenses in the state’s $16.6 billion Medicaid program under a plan the Baker administration presented to the Legislature Tuesday to balance next year’s budget.

The plan, a sweeping package of insurance reforms and temporary assessments — considered taxes by many — calls for a two-tiered assessment on companies, with the bulk of the burden falling on employers with non-disabled workers who enroll in MassHealth.

The new strategy deviates from the $2,000 assessment on certain employers that Gov. Charlie Baker proposed in his budget in January, a plan that sought to raise $300 million. Business groups and lawmakers raised concerns over the governor’s plan, but the House and Senate deferred to the administration in their budgets, essentially signaling to Baker to work with the industry to come up with a compromise.

On Beacon Hill: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

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

BOSTON — Give lawmakers a week to get something done and they’ll probably take eight days. At least.

So it should come as no great surprise that they are once again bumping up against a deadline, albeit one that is self-imposed.

Despite the fact lawmakers have been plotting revisions of the November ballot law legalizing marijuana since delaying its implementation last December, the odds of having it rolled and twisted and on the governor’s desk by June 30 seem long.

Some of that has to do with the fact the House and Senate are far apart on major issues, including taxation and local control over retail dispensaries.

The House didn’t help the cause last week with a bungled rollout of a comprehensive marijuana bill that House Speaker Robert DeLeo pulled back from a scheduled vote because of drafting issues and shaky support. Chief among the problems was a taxation miscue that would have applied the proposed 28 percent, all-in tax on marijuana sales to be compounded as the product moved through the supply chain from grower to consumer.

House leaders, including the co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee, Rep. Mark Cusack, will try again tomorrow [Monday, June 19] when they release a redrafted bill in hopes of getting that to the floor for a vote on Wednesday.

Cusack says the bill will look very similar to the one released last week, which would create an expanded Cannabis Control Commission and no longer require a town- or city-wide vote to ban the sale of recreational marijuana within a community’s borders, but instead allow the municipal governing body to do it instead.

Yes on 4, the group behind the successful marijuana ballot campaign, believes the higher tax rate will encourage the black market and slammed the House bill as a stripping of rights from voters. The group is considerably more aligned with the Senate.

The reason for the soft deadline this month is that lawmakers feel, after speaking with officials in other states with legal pot, that it will take a year for the new Cannabis Control Commission to become operational and start licensing dispensaries for retail sales.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

The Marijuana Policy Committee co-chaired by Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen was under fire last week following a heavily panned rollout of new regulations.

No one seems to have much of an appetite to further delay licensing beyond July 2018, and yet getting a bill done by the end of the month would require the House and Senate to both give up considerable ground if they are to meet in the middle for a compromise.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee whose relationship with Cusack seems anything but groovy, didn’t even wait to see the redrafted House bill before outlining a competing Senate proposal that would leave the ballot law’s tax structure untouched, with a maximum rate of 12 percent.

Jehlen also proposed to make no changes to the local opt-out process and to seal criminal records with past pot convictions that are no longer illegal. She broadly agrees, however, with the House-proposed construction of the Triple C. The proposed structure of the Cannabis Control Commission from both Cusack and Jehlen is similar to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and one that Treasurer Deborah Goldberg — the principal pot overseer under the ballot law — opposes as an undercutting of her authority.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Sales tax holiday could be revived
  • McGovern on Trump’s Cuba stance, Chandler on education, Healey on DeVos
  • Baker in D.C. for opioid panel, lobbying on health care
  • Video: Polito on ‘fair share’ amendment, local spending
  • Surtax on millionaires advances in face of legal questions

Children’s Smile Coalition turning poverty upside down, one kid at a time

Over the last few years, the Children’s Smile Coalition has been helping children in Worcester County and beyond at a breakneck pace, expanding their work, and winning community awards all while remaining entirely nonprofit.

And there’s more to come. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s met Mary Ellen Wessell, the group’s executive director.

“The most important thing about this charity is that nobody gets paid,” Wessell, a 15-year resident of the Rochdale section of Leicester, said in a recent interview. Wessell and her staff receive no compensation for the volunteer work they do.

“One-hundred percent of all donations go to the programs. The executive director and all volunteers receive no compensation,” the CSC website states on the front page.

Wessell manages three initiatives that make up the coalition’s core: Santa’s Big League, Project KIN and Young Heroes Night. That’s in addition to an already jam-packed schedule. She is raising a 13-year-old daughter, Shelby, who will follow her footsteps to St. Peter-Marian next year, runs her own consulting firm, Baystate Business Solutions, has a part-time job at Tufts University, and is working to grow CSC.

More from the June 11-17 Worcester Sun:

On Beacon Hill: With potential $1B storm on radar, foggy fiscal forecast looms

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

BOSTON — Storm clouds have been gathering for months over state finances, but as the end of the fiscal year fast approaches it’s the dense fog that has rolled into Beacon Hill casting the darkest shadow.

May tax collections reported last week by the Department of Revenue solidified the status quo. The state is on track to finish the year in three weeks close to half a billion dollars short of revenue targets.

For the glass-half-full set, the fiscal drought did not get worse after last month. Taxes paid in May exceeded expectations by $30 million, ending a four-month slide and leaving a $439 million revenue hole to fill and one month of receipts left to tally.

But that may have been cold comfort for the penny pinchers in Secretary Kristen Lepore’s office who, according to Gov. Charlie Baker, have their scalpels out “nipping and tucking” to trim any fat from the budget bones, and probably a little bit of meat as well.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

“Every year things happen, and because things happen there are many line items in the budget that don’t end up actually spending their full appropriation. We just started paying a lot more attention to that earlier than we normally would,” Baker said early in the week about how his administration is approaching this year’s budget-balancing Rubik’s Cube.

So what kinds of things have been happening? That’s anybody’s guess.

The governor’s budget shop — and the governor himself — has been tight-lipped about how it’s managing the state’s spending in the face of the revenue drizzle. And legislative leaders, after working themselves into a tizzy in December about the governor’s choices to cut $98 million, seem content to let him nip-tuck as much and as often as he sees fit.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said last week he doesn’t know how the governor has been controlling spending, but hasn’t heard any complaints from advocates either. And Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he’s confident the governor will share his strategy when he’s ready.

“So that’s his job, and we’ll work with him, but I’m hoping and looking forward to getting some more information soon,” he said in a radio interview.

So until Baker decides to let a little sunshine into his process, budget watchers will have to hold their breath and wait for the storm to pass.

The length of the storm is undetermined but it was punctuated Friday by news that Standard & Poor’s has lowered the state’s bond rating.

The Boston Globe also reported last week that days after House and Senate budget negotiators met for the first time Monday to begin the push-and-pull over the fiscal 2018 budget, top legislative and administration officials huddled with economic advisors to get a read on what to expect in fiscal 2018.

The report said some economists believe as much as a $1 billion will need to be taken out of the budgets passed by both the House and Senate — not surprising given tax collection trends — but DeLeo said the same day that no final decision had been made.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Immigration bill prompts fiery debate, gubernatorial rebuke
  • Warren on financial predators; Markey on Trumpcare
  • Moore’s committee advances bill to curb campus sex assault
  • McGovern rails against proposed food benefit reduction
  • House pushes handheld cellphone ban for drivers

Editorial: Massachusetts should drop the mascot distraction

The Algonquin Tomahawks would get the axe if a bill on Beacon Hill advances. The Grafton and Ware Indians would be no more. About 30 or so other public schools in Massachusetts would also have to change their mascots.

We say to state legislators: Not so fast.

A bill banning American Indian-themed names for school sports teams had a joint hearing last week. The measure should be stopped in its tracks.

It’s an overreach, for starters.