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.
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
“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
THE BIG DEAL
Becker’s Johnson among black leaders tapped for panel to ‘move the needle’ on economic opportunity
By Matt Murphy
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently took executive action to set up a commission to advise his administration on ways it can extend economic prosperity to black communities across the state at a time when one black lawmaker said minorities are feeling “fear and anxiety” about the future.
Marking Black History Month by signing an executive order to create the Black Advisory Commission, Baker said he’s looking for the group over the next two years to “pick two or three things, not 100, that can really move the needle.”
“For us to succeed as a Commonwealth — a Commonwealth — it’s important that voices, all voices, believe they have a chance to be heard,” Baker said at a State House signing ceremony, where members of the new commission and their families gathered.
Baker made a concerted effort in his successful 2014 campaign to reach out to black communities across the state, but particularly in Boston, where his efforts were rewarded when he was able to peel away greater support from the traditionally Democratic voting bloc than he had four years earlier.
His administration has taken some steps to improve opportunities in minority communities, including efforts to ensure business are getting a fair share of state contracting dollars. But the commission, officials said, will be another opportunity to engage with leaders of various backgrounds.
While unemployment in the black community is still higher than the state’s 2.8 percent average, Ron Walker, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, said it has fallen from 12 percent to 6 percent.
The new group, chaired by executive consultant and former Neighborhood Health Plan CEO Deborah Enos, represents a rebranding of the Gov. William Weld-era African-American Advisory Commission that became defunct under later governors, according to officials. The panel has been renamed to reflect a more diverse black community, including African-American, Cape Verdean, Haitian, Jamaican, Somalian and Ethiopian individuals.
“I honestly believe we will produce some tangible results that will impact not only the black community in Massachusetts in all of its many wonderful forms, but also the larger commonwealth,” Enos said.
[story continues after video]
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Enos said she didn’t know yet what two or three goals the commission would focus on, but described “economic prosperity, social equality and the overall well-being” as overarching goals.
The members of the commission — which includes former UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Victor Woolridge, THE BASE founder Robert Lewis Jr. and Becker College President Robert Johnson, who is also a finalist to lead UMass Dartmouth — will serve four-year terms and meet at least quarterly.
The order calls for the commission to submit a report on its work every two years, but Enos said she hopes to have concrete recommendations for the governor sooner than that.
“This is not a ceremonial advisory group. That is something we don’t agree to,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. “This is a working group.”
A LITTLE BIRDIE …
McGovern joins bipartisan chorus in calling for Congressional war vote
— Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) February 24, 2017
Tax collections climb 7 percent through mid-February, report says
Lawmakers weighing spending demands against available revenues got a promising morsel of news this week to inform their decisions.
Total tax collections midway through February were $604 million, up $40 million, or 7 percent, versus the same period last year, state Revenue Commissioner Michael Heffernan wrote in a Feb. 21 letter to lawmakers.
Fiscal year-to-date, total tax collections through Feb. 15 were $15.265 billion, which is $424 million, or 2.9 percent, higher than the same period last year.
On the spending side, Gov. Charlie Baker warned lawmakers last summer that they shouldn’t override his budget vetoes because their annual budget failed to adequately fund some major spending needs. Lawmakers went ahead and reversed $231 million in spending vetoes and Baker last Friday went back to the General Court with a bill outlining the damage associated with underfunded accounts: about $259 million.
Baker in December came under fire from legislative leaders for unilaterally cutting $98 million from the $39.5 billion state budget. Legislative leaders said those cuts were made prematurely and suggested they may restore spending but so far have not revisited Baker’s “9C” cuts. Over the objections of Baker and Republican lawmakers, the Legislature in January rammed through an $18 million pay raise package for senior public officials, including themselves.
— Michael P. Norton
IN THE NEWS
Baker, Healey assail Trump for transgender protections reversal
Gov. Charlie Baker expressed disappointment with the Trump administration’s new transgender policy and Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday invited President Trump to visit Massachusetts to see what the state’s transgender protection laws are “all about.”
The Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday withdrew a May 2016 Obama administration directive for schools to treat students in accordance with their gender identity as opposed to their sex assigned at birth.
The federal change will have no direct effect on students in Massachusetts, according to the Baker administration and advocates. Bay State lawmakers passed laws in 2011 and 2016 that grant anti-discrimination protections to transgender people in the state.
“I’m disappointed with the decision that the administration made to roll that back,” Baker said. “Thankfully, here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we’ve had in place standing administrative guidance on this issue for school districts in Massachusetts for the better part of four or five years, and we signed, as you know, legislation last year protecting transgendered individuals.”
Baker added, “I obviously don’t support the message, and I don’t believe it’s the right message, but I do believe that here in the Commonwealth of Mass. — and this is an important message for us to share with our colleagues in education and our colleagues in the community — that here in Massachusetts kids are going to be protected and kids are going to be able to feel safe and secure in the communities they live in and the schools that they go to.”
Ann Coulter, a prominent Republican media personality and provocateur, tweeted in response to the Republican governor’s reaction, “Massachusetts, you’d be better off with a Democrat next time.”
Massachusetts, you’d be better off with a Democrat next time. https://t.co/P9Ic2RGr0h
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) February 23, 2017
At a news conference Thursday, Healey said she heard the news while on the phone with her 8-year-old niece. “It broke my heart and I turned to immediately think about the many young people and families across our country who were hearing that news,” Healey said.
— Andy Metzger