On Beacon Hill: Burning down the house

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

BOSTON — Whether it was being blurted out loud or held on the tip of the tongue, the “i” word floated through Beacon Hill this week like a poorly kept secret.

No, not impeachment or investigation, although those words got a fair share of airing last week, as well. But more topical here at home, the operative word was “imbalanced.” As in, how is the state going to pay for the spending that the Senate will debate this week?

As the unemployment rate ticked up again to 3.9 percent and with state revenues being watched more closely than the State House’s resident red-tailed hawk eyes the rabbits that hop blithely across the capitol grounds, Senate leadership released its budget plan for fiscal 2018.

The roughly $40.3 billion budget bill is widely understood to be a document written in erasable ink. Barring a dramatic turnaround in May and June, budget writers are preparing for the likelihood that revenues will have to be adjusted during negotiations between the branches, which will in turn require spending to be lowered to fit the new frame.

“We recognize that we may need to adjust,” Senate Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said early last week, as she detailed the ways in which she and her committee had invested in local aid, housing, education and economic development.

As put by another senior Senate official: “This budget has a lot of vision, and maybe a few sugarplum fairies.”

But even if the numbers won’t exactly add up by the end of this week, there’s plenty of meaningful pieces in the budget that will shape the debate moving forward.

For instance, the Senate chose to include a hotel room tax on short-term rentals, such as those offered through sites like Airbnb, that would generate an estimated $18 million next year.

The Joint Committee on Financial Services is already planning a three-stop tour around the state to get input on the idea of short-term rental taxes and regulations, and the House is waiting for that process to play out. But Spilka’s budget put a marker down on the Senate side that’s vastly different from what Gov. Charlie Baker included in his own budget.

The Ways and Means budget proposes taxing short-term rentals on day one, while Baker sought to target those unit owners renting their homes like a business for more than 150 days a year.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

The Senate budget would give Baker the go-ahead to pursue an employer assessment to cover MassHealth, or Medicaid expenses, though senators would apply the assessment on certain companies with 25 or more employees, instead of 10 or more, as Baker recommended. Unlike the House, the Senate also gave Baker the choice of a second option — to raise the existing Employer Medical Assistance Contribution employer fee — which is favored by some small-business groups.

Even though the Democrat-controlled House and Senate are both now on record essentially putting their full faith and trust in the Republican governor to resolve the controversial issue of how much to tax businesses to pay for MassHealth, Democrat Jay Gonzalez credited the Legislature with “reining in” Baker by recommending adjustments to the governor’s employer assessment proposal and lowering the revenue target by about half.

That was not all Gonzalez — a former secretary of Administration and Finances for the state who has announced a run for governor — had to say this week, either. As the temperatures heated up, so did the gubernatorial race. [More on that below.]

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Baker warns D.C. leaders of looming healthcare boondoggle
  • Gonzalez ratchets up governor bid
  • McGovern on Rosenstein, Warren on Wall Street, Polito at WPI
  • All about the amendments during initial Senate budget debate
  • Video: Spilka, Senate leaders talk fiscal 2018 spending plan
  • Sudders sees pot industry as work in progress

Legal marijuana regulations remain in flux six months after voters approved law

The Legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg continue to play a game of cat-and-mouse when it comes to marijuana regulation.

On Nov. 8, 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot law legalizing possession and use of marijuana, and authorizing a retail pot industry. But 184 days later, the question of who will be in charge over overseeing the marijuana industry remains up in the air.

In December, the Legislature and Baker delayed implementation of that law by six months, passing a statute that left Goldberg in charge of regulation while pushing back from March 1 to Sept. 1 the deadline for her appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission created under the ballot law.

In January, Baker said any changes to the regulatory framework for legal cannabis should be made by April to ensure the delayed deadlines can be met.

Since then, the Legislature has formed a Committee on Marijuana Policy, which has held numerous public hearings with the goal of developing legislation significantly altering the ballot law by June. Lawmakers say they still intend to facilitate the issuance of the first retail licenses in July 2018.

Worcester Sun, May 10: Jay Pelletz continues to disappoint customers, legal marijuana delays + fighting for $15

All that and more in your Wednesday, May 10, Worcester Sun.

$40.3B House spending plan brings fiscal 2018 budget battles into focus

BOSTON — Democratic leaders of the Massachusetts House put forward a $40.3 billion spending plan for fiscal 2018 that Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said focused “first and foremost on the fundamentals” – health care, pensions and local aid.

Increases of $322 million in MassHealth, $198 million for pensions and $164 million for local aid consumed $684 million of just more than $1 billion in projected revenue growth, leaving just one-third of new revenue to spread around to other programs and services.

The House also signed off on Gov. Charlie Baker’s controversial employer assessment plan to generate new revenue to cover a shift of workers off employer-sponsored health coverage to MassHealth, but left the details for the administration to work out.

Watch: House leaders talk spending priorities

On Beacon Hill: As the Congress turns … state lawmakers dither

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

As Congress convulsed over a decision to repeal and replace Obamacare, Gov. Charlie Baker took baby steps toward a declarative “no” on the GOP health bill while he tested his own deal-making skills back in Boston.

The healthcare showdown in Washington took a circuitous path to the dramatic moment Friday afternoon when House Speaker Paul Ryan, after seven years of his party promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, pulled the replacement bill from the floor.

The American Health Care Act, as it was called, crumbled under the weight of unanimous Democratic opposition and conflicting Republican ideologies, and Gov. Baker, it would seem, was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Earlier in the week, Baker wrote to the state’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation warning that the AHCA could siphon up to $2 billion in federal funding for Medicaid from Massachusetts and threaten the state’s “continued commitment” to universal health coverage.

Baker ended by saying simply that he hoped his analysis would prove “useful” in the debate.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

And when the Telegram & Gazette editorial board tried to pin him down Thursday, Baker said he doesn’t like when others tell him how to do his job, and wouldn’t presume to tell members of Congress how to do theirs.

Something (or maybe nothing) changed between that late afternoon meeting and 10 p.m., when Baker pulled out his phone to tell his Twitter followers that the AHCA “should not pass” in its current form.

He got his wish Friday, when Ryan conceded that Obamacare would be the law of the land for the “foreseeable future.”

With or without the AHCA, the governor and legislative Democrats are probably going to have to come to some type of agreement on how to address surging MassHealth costs. Enrollment growth in the state Medicaid program threatens to box out other priorities in coming budgets, but building a consensus around who should help pay for that health coverage, and how, has been difficult.

Baker initially put forward a plan to penalize employers that didn’t cover a substantial number of their workers $2,000 per full-time employee to offset the cost to the state of providing that coverage through MassHealth.

Balking business leaders, however, have put that proposal in serious jeopardy, and the administration has been working behind the scenes with business groups on an alternative strategy that would abandon the idea of penalizing employers for not covering their workers.

Business would still pay under the alternative plan being developed, but not the full $300 million Baker had been counting on to balance his budget plan. The pain would also be spread across a broader swath of the employer community with an increase in what is known as the Employer Medical Assistance Contribution, which is used on healthcare for low-income and uninsured residents.

Whether this concept will fare any better than the employer assessment is still an open question. While small business groups called it “preferable” to Baker’s pending budget proposal, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President James Rooney said it was still built on the “flawed” premise that employers should be the ones riding to the rescue.

“Penalizing employers who provide their employees with good-quality health care benefits should not be part of the solution,” Rooney said.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Blinded by the Trump, state Dems have plenty on their plates
  • Then again, the AHCA did go down in flames … to Twitter we go!
  • Midyear spending plan on Baker’s desk
  • State House leaders jockey for position in marijuana law debate

LOOKING AHEAD

On Beacon Hill: March Madness, Murphy’s Law and Trumping the budget

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

BOSTON — Maybe it was a little luck of the Irish.

With the forecast showing a monster nor’easter churning up the coast, Gov. Charlie Baker had one eye on the Doppler radar and another on the front gates of the State House early last week where he would welcome Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny to Boston.

Baker and Kenny would chat for awhile about economic ties between Massachusetts and Ireland, and flip through a photo album of the governor’s recent vacation to the Emerald Isle. And then Baker would go downstairs to stand in front of a bank of cameras and do his best Peter Benchley impersonation.

“Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water,” the governor teased as he approached the mic.

But as the March 14 blizzard fizzled into a run-of-the-mill late-winter storm with a mix of heavy snow and rain in many parts of the state, Baker seemed to have largely avoided the cardinal political sins of executive storm management: over- or under-reaction.

And winter-weary residents didn’t lose sight of spring; it only got a little blurry.

Second guessing will always happen, and the governor even did a bit of that himself when he said he was scratching his head after the final flakes had fallen wondering whether the National Weather Service had kept him in the dark about changing weather patterns.

But Baker did not go all in with a full travel ban (which had been considered, and even used by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy) nor did he slough it off entirely and run the risk of a real mess on his hands. He took the safe middle, urging people to “work from home” and stay off the roads if they had a choice, and few were going to complain about that.

Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is also the mantra Bay State Democrats, and even Baker, are taking toward President Trump’s new budget blueprint.

Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump

The $1.1 trillion spending plan released by the White House would slash federal research funding, community block grants, low-income heating assistance, Meals on Wheels, environmental protection and on and on and on (though the defense sector could possibly do quite well).

Baker denounced the 22 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health proposed by the president.

“It’s not just bad for Massachusetts, it’s bad for the country,” Baker said on the radio.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Baker rails against deep NIH cuts in Trump budget plan
  • Marijuana panel sets hearing schedule, including Shrewsbury forum
  • MBTA service cuts should be ‘last resort,’ governor says
  • Legislators discuss advantages of permanent daylight saving time

Legal marijuana advocates fighting changes as Legislature debates, delays law

Marijuana advocates spent millions of dollars to put a legal marijuana law in place in Massachusetts last year, and indicated earlier this week they are willing to spend more to protect the law approved by almost 1.8 million voters.

Beacon Hill leaders have made clear they intend to change the law — parts of which took effect in December, the rest delayed six months by the House, Senate and governor — and the committee in charge of making alterations to it is scheduled to hold its first hearing Monday.

Jim Borghesani, the communications director for the successful Yes on 4 campaign who now works with the Marijuana Policy Project, said the advocacy group is prepared to spend money in Massachusetts to make the case that legislative changes violate the voter-approved law.

“There is a chance on that,” Borghesani said when asked by a reporter if MPP might spend money on a “voter persuasion” effort. “We’ve already spent some money on social media targeting, which we think has been very effective; letting some members know exactly how their constituents feel.”

Worcester Sun, March 15: The Cosmo going strong, Green Day, Top 5 stories + more

An enlightening conversation with QCC’s Gail Carberry hits the Free to Read section. Legal marijuana advocates are ready to roll in opposition to proposed changes to the delayed law. Inbox is overflowing. It’s all in your Wednesday, March 15, Worcester Sun.

On Beacon Hill: Doing time, with Baker and Healey and Trump

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

After bottling up discussions in a roughly yearlong study, state officials this week uncorked a proposal to slow the criminal justice system’s revolving door of recidivism.

The plan, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would afford convicted traffickers in marijuana and cocaine an opportunity to reduce their time of incarceration by participating in programs behind bars. That same opportunity would not be extended to traffickers in heroin and other opiates under the bill.

The long-awaited criminal justice reform bill doesn’t do much else in its current form. But even the strongest advocates of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes called the legislation a good, if small, first step.

The road to a more comprehensive overhaul of the Commonwealth’s punishment policies will likely be long and winding.

The perspective of voters, and lawmakers, in more suburban and rural communities around the state is likely different, and perhaps less personal, than the neighbors of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. At last month’s Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, the Jamaica Plain Democrat described how there are city blocks in her district where not one household is unaffected by the criminal justice system.

There are likely cul de sacs and country roads elsewhere in the state where the criminal courts are a mere abstraction for all who live there.

Racial disparities in the prison population are one of the problems reformers hope to address.

Tight budgets might come to the aid of those seeking further reductions in the prison population. It cost an average of about $53,000 annually to house a prison inmate as of fiscal year 2014.

A continued reduction in the Massachusetts prison population — Baker has emphasized that the number of prisoners has fallen under his watch — could free up budget dollars for other priorities, since tax revenue growth has been sluggish for an extended period despite low unemployment.

Yet from a political perspective, the elected officials who craft state laws must worry that today’s trafficker in “maui waui” or “sour diesel” could, if freed, go on to commit future crimes that shock the public conscience and call into question any steps toward leniency.

Pixabay

State legislators are keeping legal marijuana atop their agenda.

Speaking of marijuana strains, the two co-chairpersons of the Legislature’s Committee on Marijuana Policy this week outlined their approach as they consider changes to the voter-approved law legalizing the eventual retail sale of the leafy drug.

Braintree Democrat Rep. Mark Cusack and Somerville Sen. Patricia Jehlen, also a Democrat, subscribe to the theory that voters endorsed the thrust of marijuana legalization without supporting every detail of the ballot question.

Pro-pot liberals might become conflicted between using marijuana excise taxes to increase state revenue — as Medicaid gobbles up budget allocations — and their goal of making regulated weed affordable, thereby cutting out the illicit market.

Meanwhile, the federal government could play a bigger role in enforcing its prohibition of the drug. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently said he believes the public “will see greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws.

Talk of stepped-up anti-pot enforcement was not the only way the Trump administration intruded on the Congressional recess, which coincided with school vacation week in Massachusetts.

Top state officials responded last week to the latest policy move out of Washington, D.C., rolling back a roughly nine-month-old directive to honor students’ bathroom gender identities in schools.

The move by the U.S. education and justice departments will have no direct effect on Bay State students’ rights, as state laws already provide protections to transgender children and adults. The legal effect in other states is also debatable, as a Texas judge had previously barred enforcement nationwide of the Obama administration guidance.

But as a symbolic gesture, the Trump administration move went down like a glass of syrup of ipecac among the officials who rallied support for transgender rights in Massachusetts.

— Andy Metzger

SAY WHAT?

“They seem to be hell-bent on punching down, and I would like to see Donald Trump pick on somebody his own size and not a child. … I think it’s symbolic that the first order of business by our new United States attorney general was to go after vulnerable kids, and in particular transgender students.” 

— Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey on the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama-era federal transgender guidelines

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Baker taps black leaders, including Becker’s Johnson, for advisory panel
  • Video: New commission members discuss what’s next
  • McGovern joins bipartisan chorus in calling for Congressional war vote
  • State reports rising tax revenues
  • Healy, Baker among officials disappointed in Trump transgender move

On Beacon Hill: Got a light? Burning issues and simmering feuds

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

If March college basketball is one of the biggest drains on workplace productivity of the year, then Beacon Hill bracketology has the opposite effect.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg finally filled in their seeding charts this week, allowing for the legislating process to truly begin. And no two chairmen will be more under the gun than Braintree’s Rep. Mark Cusack and Somerville’s Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

Cusack and Jehlen were tapped to co-chair the new Committee on Marijuana Policy, starting a four-month countdown-clock for the two Democrats and their committee to craft a comprehensive re-write of the recreational marijuana ballot law.

Jehlen, a legal marijuana supporter, was picked over Sen. Jason Lewis for the chairmanship after Lewis spent much of the past two years becoming the Senate’s expert on marijuana policy.

The problem for Lewis, however, was that he came out of that process an ardent opponent of legal pot and essentially tipped his hand by filing numerous bills already this year to change the law.

State House News Service

Cusack and Jehlen

Instead, Lewis will serve as Jehlen’s vice-chair, and Rosenberg is confident that Jehlen will be able to engage with the marijuana advocate community in ways that Lewis could not have.

On the House side, Cusack is something of a wildcard. He would not say Thursday how he voted on the ballot question, and DeLeo touted Cusack’s open-mindedness on the issue as a chief selling point for his selection to lead the pot effort.

Gov. Charlie Baker has suggested he would like to see a bill even earlier than June. But the Republican has his plate full as well dealing with a new White House administration that challenges, on a near daily basis, his desire to remain above the fray, and getting a new Supreme Judicial Court nominee confirmed by a Governor’s Council that increasingly makes Congressional infighting look like child’s play.

— Matt Murphy

OFF THE TOP

With friends like these …

For the second straight week, the Governor’s Council, the elected body that vets Baker’s judicial nominees, dissolved into a puddle of name-calling, accusations and fist-pounding.

Though the animosity ostensibly stemmed from a disagreement over how the vote was handled for a Superior Court nominee, the eight-member council can barely be in the same room together anymore. And the anger runs deeper than one nominee.

  • Councilor Mary Hurley, a Democrat, accused Councilor Marilyn Devaney of raining “terror” upon the panel.
  • Jennie Caissie, a Republican from Oxford, said the council’s reputation “as a laughingstock” can be put squarely at Devaney’s feet for bringing incivility to the process.
  • Devaney yelled back that she was being bullied for standing up for the rules, if they even exist, and accused Caissie of spending too much time in a local watering hole.
  • Meanwhile, Councilor Robert Jubinville accused Councilor Joe Ferreira of being a “bootlicker” and a “rubber stamp” for the governor as he pounded his fist on the table two times to drive home his point.

And all of this transpired within the governor’s suite with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito hopelessly trying to maintain order, and staffers poking their heads out of offices wondering what could be going on.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Moore among senators pushing criminal justice reforms
  • McGovern tweet scrutinizes U.S.-Russia ties
  • Chandler: Stepping away from State House transit role
  • From Baker with love: Time to investigate Russia dealings
  • Video: Auburn’s Jacobson on legal marijuana next steps
  • Fentanyl spike continues, fuels opioid death surge

THE BIG DEAL

Courtesy Sen. Micheal O. Moore's office

State Sen. Mike Moore

Moore among senate leaders urging action on criminal justice reform