Sina-cism: Lawmakers can’t resist stirring the pot

Advocates of marijuana legalization are pleased following agreement last Monday among House and Senate negotiators on Beacon Hill on an implementation package for recreational marijuana sales.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

I understand the short-term euphoria. By July 1, 2018, you will be able to purchase marijuana legally in a state once dominated by Puritan morality and blue laws.

“While we don’t approve of every provision of this bill, we are satisfied that the outcome will serve the interests of Massachusetts residents and allow the Commonwealth to displace the unregulated marijuana market with a system of taxation and regulation,” said Matthew Schweich of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group behind last November’s ballot initiative.

But will this legislation create a well-regulated marijuana market, suppress illicit drugs, yield reliable state tax revenue in the long term and pass constitutional muster?

More Sina-cism: Why healthcare reform will happen

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

Legal marijuana deal includes 20 percent tax, significant shifts from ballot law [+ video]

BOSTON — Almost three weeks later than they had hoped, lawmakers struck an accord Monday on marijuana policy that would tax retail pot sales at a maximum rate of 20 percent and paves the way for those sales to begin in just less than a year.

House and Senate negotiators agreed after about three weeks of talks to a compromise bill that is expected to emerge for up-or-down votes in both branches today. The bill, as with all conference committee reports, will not be subject to amendment.

In addition to hiking the tax rate and altering the composition of the panel that will oversee the budding marijuana industry here, the deal also calls for an unusual strategy: linking the mechanism for banning future marijuana shops to how communities voted on the marijuana ballot law last year. And despite being almost three weeks late, legislative leaders said, the bill keeps retail marijuana shops on track for a July 2018 opening.

“We have protected the right of adults to grow, possess, and use marijuana. To give them access to a safe, legal supply, the bill removes barriers to the development of a legal market,” Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the Marijuana Policy Committee co-chair and lead Senate negotiator, said in a statement. “It protects the rights of medical marijuana patients, and gives opportunity to farmers and to people who have been harmed by the War on Drugs. The tax rate remains among the lowest in the country, and the same as in Oregon, often seen as successful.”

Watch: Pot panel talks compromise

On Beacon Hill: State House leadership thrust into game of thrones

BOSTON — While he never spoke about it — or spoke much at all unless it was to explain a bill to his colleagues in caucus — state Rep. Brian Dempsey’s mere presence in the second-floor offices of the House Ways and Means Committee kept the wolves at bay.

As long as he held the chairmanship of that powerful committee, House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not have to worry about the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that has periodically frustrated and undermined speakers in the past.

But everyone knows what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Dempsey, the Haverhill Democrat who announced last week that he accepted a job offer from lobbying firm ML Strategies [see story below], could have been speaker by now had DeLeo not preempted his term-limited exit from the Legislature by wiping the very eight-year limit he put into the rules in 2009 off the books in 2014.

Now the speaker says he’s running for re-election in 2018 and doesn’t have “any view in my mirror” in terms of an exit strategy. Dempsey said DeLeo’s prolonged stay had nothing to do with his decision to take off his lapel pin, loyal until the end.

But it’s hard not to wonder what if.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

House Speaker Robert DeLeo

DeLeo now has to choose a new Ways and Means chairman, or chairwoman, knowing that whoever he elevates will instantly be viewed as a contender to become the next speaker.

It also appears certain that DeLeo will face pressure from groups like the Black and Latino Caucus, the Women’s Caucus and the Progressive Caucus to pick a minority or a woman or someone more ideologically left of center.

Some of the names wafting through the halls as possible Dempsey successors include Economic Development Committee Chairman Rep. Joseph Wagner, Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch, Telecommunications Committee Chairman Thomas Golden, State Administration Committee Chairman Peter Kocot and Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus.

Gov. Charlie Baker learned of Dempsey’s plan to leave the Legislature when Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called him on his cellphone in Providence, where the governor was taking part in the National Governors Association Summer Meeting.

The governor spent most of the day Thursday huddled behind closed doors with his fellow governors, who had one eye on their conference agendas and another on their smartphones as details of the U.S. Senate’s Obamacare repeal rewrite filtered out.

Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price were both expected in Rhode Island over the weekend to sell the governors on a plan that already appears in jeopardy.

Baker remained back in Massachusetts Friday to continue reviewing the $40.2 billion budget he must act on by Monday, but issued a statement saying that after review he believes the revised Senate bill would “put a harmful strain on the state’s ability to continue providing healthcare coverage for the people of Massachusetts.”

Administration officials said the governor was also still working through the options for how to handle MassHealth in the near-term before any possible federal changes come over the transom. Baker said last Monday he was unsure whether he’d sign off on $200 million in new assessments on employers, agreed to by the Legislature, without the MassHealth eligibility reforms he sought as part of a compromise with the business community.

While Baker is expected to sign the budget, at least in part, on Monday, earlier this week he signed a hastily-approved $26 million spending bill to make sure that attorneys who handled cases for indigent clients last fiscal year could get paid.

The state’s penchant for underfunding the Committee for Public Counsel Services account caught up to it this month when CPCS ran out of money to pay the lawyers for their work.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Dempsey departure sends shockwaves through State House
  • McGovern rips Ryan on Afghanistan, Warren slays GOP healthcare bill
  • Marijuana progress, but still no deal
  • Millionaires tax among potential funding options in free-tuition bill

On Beacon Hill: The $40 billion buzzkill

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

BOSTON — Consider Beacon Hill’s mellow harshed.

To the extent that the Fourth of July break was supposed to be a timeout for House and Senate lawmakers deadlocked over an annual state budget bill and legislation regulating legal marijuana, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The smoke had no sooner cleared from the fireworks over the Charles River than lawmakers returned to work midweek to find that tensions simmering behind the two major issues before the Legislature were ready to bubble over.

Deadlines had already been blown. Speculation about sticking points was swirling. And lawmakers were being asked to defend why Massachusetts, a state prideful of bipartisanship, was one of just a handful nationwide without a fiscal 2018 budget in place.

A $40.2 billion budget deal to fund the government for the next eleven-plus months would eventually emerge from the fracas and be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker for his review, but not before a few punches were thrown.

The post-Fourth of July pyrotechnics got started early Wednesday evening when, after the branches broke for the day without agreement on marijuana or a budget, sources close to the negotiations told State House News Service that talks over both issues had become intertwined.

The mere suggestion that House and Senate leaders might be using items in one bill as leverage for a deal on the other drew swift and forceful denials from both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

But at times it became unclear whether the top Democrats were denying that attempts at cross-topic horse-trading had taken place, or simply their own involvement.

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

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

Rosenberg chalked up the talk of linkage between the two conference committee negotiations to “mischief makers” looking to spoil the stew, but DeLeo took it one step further. Despite his disavowal that the House would ever stoop to such politics, he suspended the House’s participation in talks over marijuana regulation to remove “distractions” and focus on getting an already-late budget to Gov. Baker’s desk.

That move sparked an array of increasingly agitated responses from his Senate counterpart. Rosenberg early Thursday, with a smile on his face, proclaimed himself “puzzled” by the maneuvering before suggesting the Senate can “walk and chew gum at the same time” and inviting the House to do the same.

But when it became clear that a budget deal was imminent and that, just maybe, DeLeo’s posturing achieved its intended result, the leader from Amherst, this time a bit more wide-eyed, declared it “absurd” that the pot-talk suspension had anything to do with the budget compromise or that negotiations might have been linked prior.

“Whoever made up those rumors and spread them had an intention, a nefarious intention. There were never any discussions linking the two. It was b.s.,” he told reporters. It was a rather unusual outburst for the typically good-natured leader whose hallmark has been decorum.

The talk of linkage between pot and the budget clearly struck a nerve throughout the building.

But in some ways legislative leaders played a role in inviting those types of leaks and speculation about motives and gamesmanship as they insist on a level of secrecy that leaves even the governor guessing about what goes on behind closed doors, where the important decisions about the major bills are made.

Seven hours and 56 minutes after House and Senate leaders filed their compromise budget bill with the House clerk, the voting was done and the fiscal 2018 budget — a slimmed-down version of what lawmakers passed this spring — was on its way to Baker.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey tried to put a shine on the budget, which lowered tax projections for next year by $733 million and forced cutbacks throughout. He told House members before they voted that most programs and agencies would still see an increase, albeit one smaller than once envisioned.

Meanwhile, down in the Senate’s temporary meeting quarters Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka spoke about “pain,” and Rosenberg would call it the “harshest state budget since the last recession.”

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Sales tax holiday, marijuana regulations back on front burner
  • McGovern on Green Street, Markey on North Korea, Healey on DeVos
  • Administration says healthcare reforms will continue to be top priority
  • Video: Budget ‘not without pain,’ Spilka says
  • Governor eyes trust funds to fill fiscal 2017 revenue gap

Marijuana and abortions, taxes and Trump: Looking ahead at what could go wrong on Beacon Hill

BOSTON — The limited agenda of the first half of 2017 is turning into the limited agenda of the second half as the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker begin July still working on the state budget and changes to the voter-approved marijuana law.

The lack of activity and consensus on major issues within the Legislature also appears to be fueling continued efforts by activists to just bypass Beacon Hill altogether and put additional laws in place without the involvement of elected officials.