July 2, 2017

On Beacon Hill: A watched pot never boils

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

"Absolutely no comments," said state Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont -- one of six conferees tasked with creating a final marijuana bill -- when asked about the conference committee's progress ahead of a self-imposed Friday deadline. "Every day, every hour is a surprise," said colleague Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, the lead Senate conferee.

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

BOSTON — The Fourth of July holiday, with any luck, may be just the dash of salt legislative negotiators need to bring to a simmer deals over a new annual budget and marijuana legalization legislation that proved elusive as the hours peeled away on fiscal 2017.

Shuffling off into the weekend, tails tucked between their legs, important decisions hanging over their heads, not even the enticement of fireworks, parades and an unencumbered four-day break could pull a compromise out of the back rooms of the State House, where frustration between the branches was mounting.

Two issues were in play this week, both with looming — if inconsequential — deadlines. Anticipation, unrequited, was high.

The new fiscal year began Saturday, but with an interim budget in place to pay $5.5 billion worth of bills in July, state lawmakers had the luxury of not trying to rush a deal if there was no deal to be made. Not only are lawmakers trying to decide what to do with Gov. Charlie Baker’s comprehensive Medicaid reform plan dropped on the conference committee last week, but unreliable tax projections have complicated the math.

As for the overhaul of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law, the House and Senate have been at odds over taxes, local control of the siting of retail shops, and the makeup of a regulatory panel known as the Cannabis Control Commission.

Leadership of the House and Senate set an artificial deadline of June 30 to complete their work, but nothing happens if talks spill over into next week, or the week after that.

The tax rate, according to some close to the negotiations, remained at least one of the sticking points, with the House entering talks at 28 percent and the Senate asking for an unchanged 12 percent tax rate, as prescribed in the ballot law.

Asked if a deal over marijuana was imminent late Friday afternoon, Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, shrugged. “How should I know?” said one of the few people actually in a position to be able to answer that question with any authority.

As Beacon Hill waited, last week provided enough actual news to fill what Gov. Baker described in an interview with State House News Service as the “black hole” that is the conference process.

President Donald Trump left mouths, including Baker’s, slack-jawed by the cruelty of his Twitter fusillade against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski last week; Eversource and National Grid shelved plans to bring a $3.2 billion natural gas pipeline into New England; state Revenue Commissioner Michael Heffernan revoked a directive that would have required many online retailers to begin collecting sales taxes on July 1; and long-serving Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester passed away after a battle with cancer.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Senate again passes bill to ban device use while driving
  • Warren tweaks CEOs on health care, Polito lauds Worcester investment
  • Eldridge teams up with Republican to close healthcare loophole
  • State rebuffs White House election panel’s request for voter information

LOOKING AHEAD

Senate again passes bill to ban cellphone, mobile device use while driving

Massachusetts drivers would be banned from using handheld devices behind the wheel under legislation approved June 29 by the Senate. Bill supporters said it would make roads safer and force behavioral changes in an era when people have become addicted to using cellphones and social media, even while driving vehicles at high rates of speed.

“We know people are still texting even though we passed a texting ban a number of years ago,” Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, said. “This morning, as I was heading into the Sumner Tunnel, three or four different drivers were driving like this as they headed towards the [tunnel], looking at their phones, holding them up to their faces.”

U.S. Air Force

While roads and cars are increasingly safer, distracted driving appears to be causing a spike in accidents.

The bill (S 2092) lays out fines — $100 for a first offense, $250 for the second offense and $500 for third and subsequent offenses — and calls for insurance surcharges to kick in upon a third offense.

It bans drivers from touching or holding a mobile device in either hand, except for a “single tap or swipe” to activate hands-free mode. Drivers would be prohibited from using a phone’s camera function; writing, sending or reading messages; accessing social media; manually inputting information into a navigation system; or making video calls. Calls and GPS navigation would be allowed using hands-free technology.

The sponsor, Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, said he has been filing a handheld devices ban for over a decade, and in that time technology has become more pervasive and more lives have been lost.

“Thousands of people die every year in the country, including many here in Massachusetts, because of distracted drivers,” he said. “I can remember early on in the debate somebody coining the phrase, ‘You can’t legislate against stupidity,’ and I’ve heard it a lot — I think we all define stupidity differently — and although I agree with that, I do think you can and should legislate … against dangerousness.”

The bill expands the 2010 law that banned texting while driving, but allowed most drivers to continue to use phones for calls. It also prohibited handheld device use by 16- and 17-year-olds. Supporters of the broader device ban say the existing law has been difficult for police to enforce.

The Senate passed the bill on a non-recorded voice vote after more than three hours of debate on amendments. The Senate passed a handheld devices ban last session, also on a voice vote, and a similar House bill received initial approval before sputtering out.

Fourteen states, including New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut, already have “hands-free” laws in place.

— Katie Lannan

A LITTLE BIRDIE

Warren: Time for CEOs to step up on health care

Polito trumpets $20M Central Building investment

NOTED

Eldridge teams with — gasp! — a Republican to close healthcare loophole

One of the Senate’s most progressive Democrats and a representative who serves as a Republican National Committee member teamed up Thursday to support a bill that would exempt college students enrolled in health care sharing organizations from a requirement to purchase insurance.

“The fact that we’re testifying together on this bill shows how bipartisan this bill is,” Acton Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge told the Higher Education Committee as he sat beside Lakeville Republican Rep. Keiko Orrall.

Orrall said her bill (H 642) “closes a loophole” and would affect 100 to 200 students, with no financial impact to the state.

Katie Lannan / State House News Service

Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Republican Rep. Keiko Orrall testified Thursday morning before the Higher Education Committee.

State law requires full- and part-time college students to “participate in a qualifying student health insurance program,” though students can waive their participation if they have other insurance “providing comparable coverage.”

Health care sharing organizations, which are also known as health care sharing ministries, allow members, typically linked by a shared religious belief, to contribute to each other’s medical costs. Members of such groups are exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate, and Orrall said the National Collegiate Athletic Association considers membership in health care sharing organizations as compared to insurance.

“So we’re asking that here in the commonwealth that our standards match those standards,” she said.

Eldridge, who has repeatedly filed bills that would institute a single-payer health care system in Massachusetts, described healthcare-sharing organizations as an “interesting approach” to meeting medical needs.

— Katie Lannan

IN THE NEWS

State rebuffs White House election panel’s request for voter information

Massachusetts does not plan to hand over voting records to a White House commission investigating allegations of voter fraud and cases of voter suppression in the American election system.

The commission sent a letter to every state on Wednesday requesting that publicly available voter roll data be sent to the White House, National Public Radio reported. The commission is seeking the name, address, birth date, party affiliation, last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number and voting history back to 2006 for every voter in the country.

Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin, said Massachusetts will not comply with the request, which asks that all data be submitted by July 14, five days before the commission meets.

“The central voter registration is not a public record. Period,” McNiff said.

The bipartisan Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, was established by the president through an executive order in May. The letter requesting voter roll data was penned Republican Kris Kobach, vice chairman of the commission and the secretary of state of Kansas.

Along with voter roll data, Kobach is asking officials to weigh in about changes they would like to see to federal laws and state and local election administration support to “enhance the integrity” of elections. Kobach also asked officials to share any instances of voter fraud, intimidation or disenfranchisement with the commission.

Officials from California have already said they will not hand over voter rolls to the commission. Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill said she will share publicly available data, though she believes the commission lacks “openness” about what it plans to do with that data, according to NPR.

— Stephanie Murray

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