As we look back at the conclusion of the formal session of the 190th General Court, we could all agree that it has been an eventful session punctuated by, among other things, changes in Committee and leadership assignments in both the House and Senate. As is often the case, the end of session was marked with a frenzy of activity as the House and Senate worked to iron out differences – which, in some cases, were major – on various policy and spending bills. The differences in policy were further complicated by a difference in approach, as the two bodies tackled the legislative drafting process in notably different ways. In the end, as the clock struck midnight on July 31st, some bills and the issues with which they dealt were left unfinished. Healthcare, education and housing ran out of time and faced too wide of a division to get done. Still, there was much that was accomplished on some of the most challenging issues facing our state, and there is a clear commitment from the legislature and administration to revisit unresolved issues early in the next session.
In addition to the annual budget, major bills dealing with energy and environment, economic development, opioid abuse and treatment, as well as a grand bargain on taxes and paid family medical leave marked some of the most significant policies tackled this past year. We tackle those bills below:
ENERGY: On energy, the Conference Committee achieved the difficult task of finding common ground from two very different starting places. Important highlights of the clean energy legislation include an updated energy storage target to 1,000 MWh by 2025, a graduated increase in the Renewable Portfolio Standard between 2019 and 2030, the establishment of a Clean Peak Standard, and the authorization to procure an additional 1600 MWh of offshore wind generation under Section 83C, and major revision to the state’s Monthly Minimum Reliability Contribution (MMRC) charge. Following the conference report’s passage in the Senate, members noted the importance of continuing to adopt aggressive policy measures that will allow the Commonwealth to continue to meet its requirements laid out in the Global Warming Solutions Act, so we should anticipate another spirited debate on energy policy in the next legislative session.
BOND BILLS: In the final hours of formal session, the House and Senate came to an agreement on a $1.15 billion economic development bill that provides funding for local workforce development projects such as capital improvements for community centers and local parks as well as various policy provisions including Non-Competes and Patent Trolls (though the Governor vetoed Patent Trolling section which the Senate has indicated will be a priority next session). Conferees also agreed on an environmental bond bill addressing coastal resiliency measures, sea level rise and important investments in the blue economy. Legislators found a middle ground on the Massachusetts Life Sciences Corporation (MLSC) bond bill which directs $473 million dollars to the innovative and booming biotechnology industry in the Commonwealth. Earlier this year, the housing bond bill was passed to alleviate some of the pressure on the housing crisis in the Commonwealth. The Legislature also addressed state capital needs in a $3.87 billion Department of Capital Asset and Management (DCAMM) bond bill.
OPIOIDS 2.0: One of Beacon Hill’s major successes this year was the passage of compromise language addressing the opioid crisis led by Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Cindy Friedman and was signed into law without further amendment or veto. This particular legislative victory was left down to the wire as the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill after the conference committee deadline had passed. The initiatives included in the Opioid Bill 2.0, as it’s been called, focus on overlooked and underserved populations struggling with addiction such as incarcerated individuals and allows for expanded access to life-saving treatments such as Narcan and MAT. The successful implementation of the bill will require coordination from numerous branches of government including the Department of Public Health, Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, Executive Office of Public Safety & Security, Department of Corrections, and the Massachusetts Sheriffs, led by its Chair, Sherriff Peter Koutoujian.
“GRAND BARGAIN”: In June, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the “Grand Bargain” which increases the minimum wage, phases out premium pay, establishes a permanent annual two-day sales tax holiday, and develops a paid family and medical leave program. This legislation was developed in response to ballot questions that were proposed by the Raise Up Coalition and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. The paid family and medical leave program established in this legislation will allow employees to receive up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child, and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave if they or a family member suffer an injury or become ill. The employee cannot take off more than 26 weeks total. During the leave, following the first seven calendar days, an employee’s weekly wage is determined by a percentage of their salary, depending on a comparison of the employee’s weekly wage compared to the state average weekly wage. It is currently capped at $850 per week. These benefits will be funded through a .63% payroll tax, split between employees and employers. Employers can opt out of the program if they provide benefits better than or equal to the state program and employers with fewer than 25 employees do not have to pay into it.
It is true that formal session has ended, and with it go roll call votes, major legislative compromises and certain procedural technicalities. But, every week the House and Senate hold informal sessions where one or two members carry on the business of governing. Local bills dealing with sick leave and proclamations are common place. However, procedurally any bill can be called to the floor for a vote, including big ticket issues like housing reform. The trick is that one dissenting vote will kill the bill for the rest of session, meaning any member can stand up for any reason and vote a bill down without discussion.
So, while Beacon Hill comes out of its summer break and prepares for the fall election cycle, it’s important to recognize that not all bills are dead. For example, Governor Baker has repeatedly touted the need for significant housing reform on the campaign trail. He has encouraged House and Senate Leadership to move his “Housing Choices” bill during informal session despite the bill never having been moved out of Committee. It may be an unlikely option for passage for such a large, technically complex issue, but it illustrates the opportunities for passage if there are a few willing dance partners and ongoing negotiations behind closed doors.
The more likely scenario is that the complex conundrums of past sessions like healthcare reform, housing and zoning reform, education funding reform and exciting new opportunities like sports betting are likely to be pinned at the top of the list next session.
What To Expect Next Session:
While both the House and Senate sought to increase pharmaceutical price transparency, expand telemedicine services, and reform MassHealth in their respective versions of the bill, they did so in different ways and philosophical differences between the branches did not allow a compromise to be struck. One major sticking point was a measure to financially stabilize community hospitals. Lead negotiators from each branch agreed that the Legislature would revisit the legislation again next session.
Education Funding Reform
Following in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling against a ballot initiative to tax incomes over $1 million, the Legislature failed to come to an agreement on how to address funding disparities in the school funding formula. Negotiators have been trying to tackle the complexities of fixing the funding formula for several sessions now and many were banking on the “Millionaires Tax” to provide desperately needed new funding for the Commonwealth’s educational system. Next session will likely see a renewed effort to address funding inequities in the formula through policy and potential new dollars.
Sports Betting Legislation/Regulation
In May 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which banned states, with limited exceptions, from regulating and taxing sports betting. Since that time, states across the country have implemented regulations for sports betting. During the past legislative session, S2273, An Act to regulate online gaming, daily fantasy sports and online sports betting, was sent to study, but legislative leaders have made public statements indicating that legislation to regulate sports betting in Massachusetts will be considered in upcoming legislative session.