March 26, 2017

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

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker ordered flags to half-staff March 22 in memory of Watertown firefighter Joseph Toscano, who died March 17 after collapsing on duty at a two-alarm house fire. The House delayed its Wednesday roll call vote on the midyear supplemental budget because of Toscano's funeral. The spending bill included a provision doubling one-time benefits for families of first responders killed in the line of duty.

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

For Baker, DeLeo and Co., time to get down to business

Beacon Hill heads this week into the second quarter of 2017 seeming fully distracted by President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. Lawmakers are operating with both eyes on Washington, D.C., and it’s showing.

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

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

There’s little in the way of a shared legislative agenda among the Democrats who control the House and Senate, and Gov. Charlie Baker. While there is some interest in criminal justice system reforms and overhauling the marijuana legalization ballot law, legislators have not traveled far down those paths.

The preoccupation with Washington appears to be warranted, given the state’s growing reliance on federal revenues to balance its budget and signals from the new powers in Washington that the purse strings may be tightened significantly.

But there’s work to do in the Massachusetts Legislature.

State law calls for cities and towns to be notified by March 1 of expected local road and bridge repair funds, but non-controversial legislation to deliver those funds hasn’t made it out of committees yet. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has advised representatives that it will be ready for a vote on Wednesday.

Budget hearings are wrapping up this week, but House leaders have not yet agreed on a timetable to release their rewrite of Gov. Baker’s $40.5 billion budget or agreed on when they will debate it.

A LITTLE BIRDIE …

On the AHCA’s no-good, very bad day

Moore sings the praises of young constituents

NOTED

Legislature OKs $144M in midyear spending

One thing finally did get done this week: The House and Senate whipped a $144 million midyear spending bill through to the governor’s desk in their first major action since overriding the governor’s veto of pay raise legislation.

The bill represented just over half of the spending requested by Baker as legislative leaders put some items, such as additional money for snow and ice removal, on hold until they can get a final, firm number of how much is needed and take care of it in a later supplemental budget.

The House and Senate voted to double the one-time benefit for families of first responders killed in the line of duty to $300,000. The vote came the same day many lawmakers attended the funeral of Watertown firefighter Joseph Toscano, who died March 17 while on duty fighting a two-alarm fire.

— Matt Murphy

IN THE NEWS

Legislative leaders consider more changes to marijuana law

The supplemental spending plan also included $300,000 to keep the implementation process for legal marijuana moving along, as a lawmakers consider changes to the law.

The new Marijuana Policy Committee held its first hearing last week. State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg is the focus as momentum seems to be gathering behind the idea that the regulatory authority for legal pot should be put somewhere other than in the hands of a Cannabis Control Commission under her purview.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Treasurer Deb Goldberg may not be so chummy with Gov. Charlie Baker if legislative interference delays the legal marijuana law any further.

First, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and then Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, breathed life into the notion that Goldberg’s authority — bestowed by the ballot law — would not go unquestioned, and other models like the one used to regulate the casino gaming industry were floated.

Goldberg warned that changing course now would nullify much of the work her office has already done to prepare for overseeing the new retail marijuana industry and will threaten the state’s ability to meet deadlines that have already been delayed by six months. That debate is just one of many the new committee deals with as it prepares to take its show on the road for additional hearings.

Cities and towns are making a lot of noise over their desire to be able to opt out of hosting retail pot shops by a simple vote of the community’s governing body rather than a full-blown local ballot referendum.

— Matt Murphy

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