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

Baker cuts $320M from budget, digs in on MassHealth reform [+ video]

BOSTON — Almost two weeks ago, the Democrat-controlled Legislature approved what would be the state’s first budget in excess of $40 billion.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said not so fast Monday to the already scaled back $40.2 billion spending plan.

Baker planned to sign a budget for fiscal 2018 that includes $39.4 billion in spending after he vetoed $320 million from the plan, and went even further than House and Senate budget negotiators to revise tax revenue projections downward for this year by $749 million.

The governor also returned to the Legislature a new assessment on employers that he initially proposed to help pay for growing MassHealth expenses, calling on lawmakers to act quickly to package the $200 million in new employer fees with MassHealth reforms that lawmakers laid aside during budget deliberations.

Watch: Baker and Polito press conference on fiscal 2018 budget

Sun Spots with Hitch [Vol. 179]: Speaking of that $40.2B state budget …

While many Bay Staters were packing their hybrid SUVs for a trip to the Cape or StoryLand, or someplace farther away or more exotic, lawmakers on Beacon Hill were packing 10 pounds of you-know-what into a five-pound bag.

Filed early Friday, the state’s first $40B spending plan was held back by confoundingly lagging revenues but nudged forward by House and Senate leaders eager to have the chore of their shoulders.

Concerned, Hitch isn’t optimistic about getting a word in edgewise.

Editorial: More training programs needed to meet demand for skilled workers

More than 3.5 million Massachusetts residents are employed.

That’s a problem.

It’s not a problem that it’s the highest number ever for the state. Nor is it a problem because the unemployment rate of 4.2 percent outpaces the national average of 4.4 percent.

It’s a problem because that number could be and should be higher, much higher. And not addressing the root cause of that problem has wide-ranging effects on both the population and the economy.

Businesses are increasingly finding it hard to find employees. This inability can mean businesses hiring to grow, or simply to keep up with current demand, cannot do so.

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

Editorial: Lack of budgets bad sign for Mass., other states

When Massachusetts legislators failed to produce a budget for the fiscal year that began on Saturday, there was little-to-no uproar.

After all, Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers had previously agreed on a $5.5 billion interim budget to carry the commonwealth through July.

As legislators hammer out their differences in a budget likely to exceed $40 billion, they do so against a backdrop of lower-than-expected revenue in an economy that keeps creating jobs.

Lest you think this problem is specific to Massachusetts, news since Saturday shows it is more widespread than you would think. And this is not good.