September 3, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Rain, rain go away — time for legislators to make some hay

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

HELP FOR HARVEY: Donations for people affected by Hurricane Harvey were packed up Friday morning on Boston's City Hall Plaza before shipping south on trucks provided by Teamsters Local 25. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has offered to send water rescue teams to Texas, and a Beverly-based urban rescue task force was working last week in Katy, Texas.

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

BOSTON — As Hurricane Harvey stalled and Irma churned, Massachusetts wondered what if — as in what if 50 inches of rain fell in the Hub and Boston literally turned into a city on a hill.

“If we got hit with a storm like this, if Harvey hit Boston Harbor, we’re wiped out as a city,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh predicted.

But as with many things that come with price tags in the billions, decisions about how to deal with the hypothetical are often pushed off for another day. State House News Service is now taking bets on what will get built first, South Coast rail or a harbor hurricane barrier wall?

As the final days of summer peeled off the calendar, the best Bay Staters could do for now was raid their pantries and wallets, and offer a helping hand in Houston where floodwaters decimated many parts of that city in a disaster that experts say will be felt for years to come.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency offered up three firefighting teams trained in water rescues, while a Beverly-based FEMA task force of first responders was already on the ground in Texas.

With one eye on Houston, the run-up to the long Labor Day weekend meant it was time for lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general and the treasurer to finish their summer homework assignments before the first class bells have all been rung.

Senators wrapped up a series of dialogues they’ve been holding in anticipation of writing a healthcare cost control bill this fall, while Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Attorney General Maura Healey and Gov. Charlie Baker met an end-of-August deadline to make appointments to the new Cannabis Control Commission.

Despite whispers of the difficulties in finding commissioners who match the legal qualifications and are willing to work for the prescribed salaries, now former state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan — who was named by Baker last week to the “Triple C” — has company.

Pixabay

The Cannabis Control Commission is finally in full bloom.

Goldberg turned to former Bain & Company partner Steve Hoffman to chair the pot panel, and Healey named a former assistant attorney general, Britte McBride, as her pick. Together the three elected officials rounded out the board with former deputy general counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Kay Doyle and Shaleen Title, co-founder of cannabis recruiting firm THC Staffing Group.

Title, who helped write Question 4 in 2016, finds herself outnumbered by marijuana legalization opponents four to one, perhaps a predictable outcome given the public positions of officials charged with picking the board.

Hoffman, who is now retired, will pull down a $160,000 salary as chair, while the other four will earn $120,000 a year for five years as they work to turn the legal pot industry from seed to plant by next summer and keep it blooming in the years to come.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Back-to-school means back to work for Legislature
  • Baker draws fire from gubernatorial challenger
  • Warren on #DeVosWatch, Chandler goes back to school
  • State college savings program on tap for East Middle in limbo

LOOKING AHEAD

Back-to-school means back to work for Legislature

Initiative petition proponents will learn next week whether their measures are eligible for the 2018 ballot, and have an opportunity to overcome the long series of hurdles required to get there. Among the proposals in the mix early on are measures that would reduce the sales tax, implement paid family leave, raise the minimum wage, mandate nurse staffing levels, and increase the state’s renewable energy commitments.

Gov. Charlie Baker is off to Washington, D.C., where he will join four of his counterparts to testify on healthcare issues before a U.S. Senate committee. And with Cannabis Control Commission members finally named, that panel is free to dig into the work of regulating a new industry.

The Legislature, after taking August off for the most part, also stirs back to life.

Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House

A flood of education bills, including proposals to alter school start times, are on the agenda for a back-to-school Education Committee public hearing on Tuesday. Separate hearings Wednesday will shed light on legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the Massachusetts ballot, and providing official space for users to consume drugs under the supervision of healthcare professionals who may provide needle exchange, overdose prevention, and treatment referral services.

Above the committee level, legislative leaders are under pressure now that it’s September to respond to Gov. Baker’s challenge to overhaul MassHealth and decide which of the governor’s budget vetoes and amendments to address. August tax collection numbers, due out next week, will shed light on whether tax revenues are hitting targets.

A LITTLE BIRDIE …

DeVos + DeVry = Warren must decry

Chandler delivers at Clark Street School

NOTED

Baker move draws rebuke from gubernatorial challenger as field appears to grow

Baker also gave the soon-to-return Legislature something to think about with a disparate public safety bill that combined proposals to more stiffly penalize dealers of lethal drugs, and more swiftly react to the emergence of new synthetic substances, with updates to witness protection and murder-for-hire statutes.

State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

Some Democrats quickly pounced, none as sharply as Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who accused Baker of flip-flopping from his 2014 campaign position against the addition of new mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

Baker is proposing to open up drug dealers whose products lead to death to a charge of manslaughter, punishable in Massachusetts by a minimum sentence of five years.

Warren suggested that as long as there’s a mandatory minimum attached, he would oppose trying drug dealers for manslaughter, while Baker said the change would appropriately realign the criminal justice system to respond to the seriousness of the crime.

Warren is one of three Democrats looking for an opening against the popular Republican incumbent as 2018 approaches, but is that field about to expand? Rep. Paul Mark, first elected in 2010, may be getting the seven-year itch.

Two sources who have spoken directly to a political advisor of Mark’s told the News Service this week that the Berkshires Democrat is testing the well of support that might be out there among the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party for a run for higher office.

Mark, according to those two individuals, was thought to be eyeing the wide-open race for the lieutenant governor slot on the Democratic ticket, but may have broadened his thinking, as the current field has struggled to light the trail on fire.

— Matt Murphy

IN THE NEWS

College savings program on tap for East Middle snared in state budget mess

One of the state’s first experiments with helping families sock away money for college through a savings match program could be in jeopardy without action on Beacon Hill this fall.

A pilot program first authorized in 2016 was set to launch late this summer as students returned to school, but the deadline for interested families to enroll has been pushed back to Nov. 1, from the start of the school year, as officials wait to find out whether state funding will be available.

Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Worcester East Middle School

The Legislature last year approved $350,000 for the program, known as SoarMA, but as the program run by Treasurer Deb Goldberg was being set up and the five schools chosen to participate in the two-year pilot were being selected, the fiscal year ended, putting the funding in a state of limbo.

Money left unspent at the end of a fiscal year typically reverts back to the state’s general fund to be used toward other expenses unless the Legislature and governor agree to “PAC” the account forward into the next fiscal year. The acronym stands for “prior authorization continued.”

“We are continuing to work with the Legislature to make sure this important program moves forward,” Treasury spokeswoman Chandra Allard recently told State House News Service.

Baker filed a $59.5 million budget bill on Aug. 2 to close out spending and accounts for fiscal 2017, after a rocky year during which revenue collections failed to keep pace with projections and left the administration searching for unspent money and savings it could use to plug the spending gaps.

In the budget bill, Baker did not propose any carryovers from fiscal 2017 into 2018, but the Legislature could initiate such a move when it considers the spending bill this fall.

The Baker administration said the $350,000 will revert to the General Fund unless the Legislature votes to carry it over into fiscal 2018 as part of the final fiscal 2017 close-out budget bill currently before the House Ways and Means Committee.

The governor’s budget office said the “year-end exercise remains in development” and the administration will review any PAC requests included in the final supplemental budget.

The schools chosen to take part in the pilot include Worcester East Middle School, Consentino Middle School in Haverhill, Stoklosa Middle School in Lowell, Reid Middle School in Pittsfield and South End Middle School in Springfield.

The SoarMA initiative will make 529 college savings accounts available to families of eligible seventh-graders from the five pilot schools. Funded through public and private partnerships, every account will be seeded with $50 and families must save at least $100 in the first year to become eligible for matching funds up to $500 saved toward future college tuition payments.

The idea behind the college savings accounts, according to proponents of the program, is to not only help families pay for college but also get students thinking about college as a realistic goal.

Goldberg’s office partnered with Inversant, a Boston-based nonprofit, to help provide participating families with educational financial planning services.

The treasurer’s office is also running a pilot program called “$eedMA” that opened in the fall of 2016, making 529 college savings accounts seeded with $50 available to all kindergarten students in Worcester and Monson.

— Matt Murphy

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