BOSTON — Sating the municipal appetite for local aid can be just good election-year politics, a chance to take a victory lap before settling down to resolve more delicate matters of pay raises and labor costs that will require a finer touch.
The House and Senate, still with major outstanding differences to resolve on just about every issue that has emerged over the past year plus, came together this week to approve a resolution committing each branch to a $125 million increase in local aid for schools and government, exceeding increases sought by Gov. Deval Patrick.
The apparent ease with which lawmakers came to agreement on hiking local aid stood out in contrast to the knottier problem of reaching agreement on a minimum wage and unemployment insurance reform bill that has the added element of a proposed ballot question looming as an X factor.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo nudged the issue of the minimum wage forward this week when he answered one question that has been a matter of much speculation. How high will he go?
His proposal wasn’t fully ready for primetime, but DeLeo used his high-profile speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to call for a three-year, phased-in increase of the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour by July 2016, two quarters shy of the Senate-backed proposal, but equal to the level sought by ballot activists.
However, DeLeo didn’t recommend linking future increases in the wage floor to inflation and that could put the House at odds with not just the Senate, but the Raise Up Coalition, which said wage indexing is an important part of its proposal and could be cause to go to the ballot even if the Legislature splits the difference on the wage.
Senate President Therese Murray didn’t even deign to comment on the speaker’s proposal, which included a broad outline of an unemployment insurance reform package, without first reading the details. And the details, according to the speaker and his Labor Committee chairman Rep. Thomas Conroy, could be a week or two away from being committed to paper.
Even business leaders weren’t sure what to make of it. “Unemployment insurance is insanely complex,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer. “The devil is in the details.”
So in between writing jokes for this Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston, legislative leaders continued to set the table for what will soon be the last four months of the session.
After taking the stage at his ninth St. Patrick’s breakfast in Southie this weekend, which he suggested on the radio can be a “miserable experience,” Patrick announced that he would take off Monday on his next trade mission, this time to Panama and Mexico. Before getting on another plane, the governor used his time in state to roll out a new initiative focused on advancing women in the workplace.
In the last full week before committee chairmen make decisions on scores of bills under their control, no committee received more attention than the Education Committee.
It’s not often that a single lawmaker without the title of Senate president or speaker gets set up as the fall-man, or woman, for a piece of legislation on the ropes, but that’s exactly where Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston found herself this week.
As charter school advocates ramped up their pressure to move a bill lifting the cap on charter school enrollment in underperforming districts like Boston, Chang-Diaz, the co-chair of the Education Committee, and her concerns about funding being siphoned away from traditional Boston public schools became the target.
Leaders involved in the negotiations – including Rep. Alice Peisch and Speaker Robert DeLeo – said they were hopeful that a compromise could be reached. Even Patrick, not always known to interfere in the machinations of legislative horse-trading, said he has shared a possible solution to the impasse that involves leaving the cap untouched, but giving the commissioner of education the flexibility to transfer cap space in municipalities not bumping up against the limits to district like Boston, Springfield, Holyoke and Lowell.
“I think there’s going to be a good bill. There’s a lot of negotiating in order to get to any piece of complex legislation and the funding issue is real, particularly as the number of charter schools grow,” Patrick said on the radio, making no mention of the fact that his budget’s underfunding of the state charter reimbursement program is part of the problem.
There’s still time to reach a deal on charter schools, even if a resolution isn’t achieved by next Wednesday when most joint committees must report out bills. And there’s always next year. But activists are privately speculating that their chances of lifting the cap are better now with Senate President Therese Murray in charge, given her friendship with pro-charter Mayor Marty Walsh, than come January when Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg is expected to take control.
Cap space of a different sort drew dozens of other activists to the State House this week looking to facilitate more solar energy production. The Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee is weighing proposals to increase the so-called “net-metering cap,” which would allow more homeowners, businesses and municipalities to take advantage of credits on their electricity bills if they can generate solar power and sell it back to the grid.
The MBTA’s week – about as herky-jerky as a commute on the Green Line – started and ended on high notes with a major derailment in the middle.
Patrick and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey got things started on Monday with the opening of the new Yawkey commuter rail station in Fenway that has enabled additional roundtrips between Boston and Worcester, briefly reuniting the governor and former sidekick Tim Murray, who is probably thankful he doesn’t have to dust off his NASCAR suit for Sunday’s breakfast.
The excitement over the new station was quickly dampened by a brawl on the Red Line captured on video and the derailment of Green Line trolley by a driver who had previously been fired for an unreported collision with a pedestrian only to be rehired after an arbiter’s decision in his favor.
T officials, however, tried to end the week on a positive note by rolling out the details of the one-year pilot program to extend subway, trolley and select bus services until 2:30 a.m. starting later this month, the latest foray into late-night T service that officials hope will be more successful than the “Night Owl” experiment some years ago.
While T riders may be celebrating the extended service hours – and Mayor Marty Walsh’s decision to pilot late-night food trucks, drivers who prefer to get behind the wheels themselves found out exactly how much more they have to pay in vehicle inspection fees and other RMV levies into order to help the Massachusetts Department of Transportation pay its bills this coming fiscal year.
“In the case of most of the RMV fees, they have not gone up in a long, long time. Nobody likes it. I mean, I don’t like it, but it is meant to help us meet the cost of the transportation system people say they want,” Patrick said.
Though it may not qualify as state government news, former Sen. Scott Brown showed that even after he was turned away by Massachusetts voters and turned away from Massachusetts himself, he can still make headlines. Brown put a capstone on the week Friday by finally revealing his decision to form an exploratory committee in New Hampshire in anticipation of another U.S. Senate run.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Speaker DeLeo finally shows his cards on the minimum wage, while debates over cap space flare and have nothing to do with whether the Patriots can afford Darrelle Revis beyond next season.