As Mass. Legislature Kicks Off New Year, A Look At Where Key Bills Stand

A handful of bills will be occupying the headlines out of Beacon Hill during the next few months -- on issues ranging from the opioid abuse crisis to public records reform. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A handful of bills will be occupying the headlines out of Beacon Hill during the next few months -- on issues ranging from the opioid abuse crisis to public records reform. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

…And we’re back.

After nearly two months of dormancy, life returns to the halls and chambers of the Massachusetts State House on Wednesday, as the House meets in full formal session for the first time since Nov. 18. The Senate will return for its first formal session of 2016 on Jan. 21.

Hundreds of bills are in the pipeline. Some have been approved in one branch and await action down the hall. Many have received their public hearing and are expected to come up for full debate sometime before lawmakers end their session at the end of July.

The House on Wednesday plans to take up a Senate-approved measure repealing a 1989 law that automatically suspends the drivers’ licenses of those convicted of drug crimes, even if the crime was not related to driving.

A handful of other bills will be occupying the headlines out of Beacon Hill during the next few months. Here’s a summary of where things stand.

The Budget (H1)

This is the annual item that takes up most of the first half of the calendar year. The budget process tends to suck the oxygen out of the building — meaning other pieces of key legislation often get set aside until July, when the new fiscal year begins. Budget writers are currently crunching numbers to come up with a consensus revenue estimate for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

At a hearing in December, members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees and Baker administration officials heard from various experts about their predictions for the state’s revenue picture. All who testified agree revenues will go up, although not by much.

The state Department of Revenue predicts growth between 3.8 and 4.2 percent. Despite the lackluster projections, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said new taxes are not on the table, a sentiment echoed recently by Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker. Also presenting a challenge this year is a likely deficit in the current FY16 budget that could force the governor to institute emergency mid-year budget cuts.

Baker will present his budget recommendation for the new fiscal year on Jan. 27. Both Ways and Means committees will hold public hearings throughout the spring, with a version emerging out of the House Ways and Means Committee in mid-April. The full House will then chew over the proposal, with debate lasting three or four days, before going to the Senate probably in May.

Inevitably the House and Senate versions will differ, and it will be up to a conference committee to reach a compromise, most likely in June before the spending plan is sent to the governor.

Opioid Legislation (S2020, H3926)

This has been a priority of Gov. Baker’s since before taking office. After assembling an opioid task force that worked through much of 2015, Baker filed a bill with the Legislature in mid-October. The governor’s plan calls for a three-day limit on the initial prescription of opioid painkillers and seeks to allow doctors to hold a substance abuse patient for up to 72 hours without a court order if the patient appears to be a risk to themselves or others. The medical community expressed issue with those provisions. The bill has been somewhat reworked by the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee — changing the initial opioid prescription period to seven days, and requiring that anyone admitted to an emergency room with an apparent drug overdose be given a substance abuse evaluation within 24 hours. Speaker DeLeo said on Monday he expects his members will take up the bill before the end of January.

Even before the governor filed his bill, the Senate, expressing frustration with a lack of action, unanimously passed its own version of an opioid bill on Oct. 1. The Senate bill would allow a pharmacist to dispense a lesser amount than prescribed of an opiate-based painkiller, if requested by the patient. It also calls for more education on substance abuse, and for screening of students by trained school staff for signs of substance abuse. Look for the House and Senate versions of the bill to ultimately wind up in a conference committee for resolution before a final bill is sent onto the governor for his signature.

Charter School Expansion (H3804)

A bill raising the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Massachusetts was passed in the House in the 2013-’14 session, but did not pass in the Senate. Baker has come out in favor of raising the cap, as has Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Both testified in favor of the bill in October.

In recent months, senators have been holding a series of closed-door meetings in an attempt to find common ground on the issue in the current session. On Monday, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he is trying to determine if there is enough support for the bill to bring it up, adding it is a “politically and substantively complicated issue.” The Senate may very well opt not to take up the matter this session, leaving it instead to the voters to decide. A referendum calling for the cap to be raised will likely be on the ballot in November 2016.

Energy (S1965, H3724, S1979, H3854)

The House and Senate are currently in a standoff over energy. Both branches passed different versions of a bill designed to advance solar energy projects, but a conference committee has yet to produce a compromise.

With word that the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station will be closing by the end of 2019, taking with it the 680 megawatts of power it provides to the state, the governor is urging the passage of several bills still pending in the Legislature to address the state’s energy needs. In September, the governor testified in favor of what he called “a combo plate” of energy solutions, including the ability for the state to purchase hydropower from generators in Canada.

Public Records (H3858)

A bill revamping the state’s 43-year-old public records law was unanimously approved by the House in November. The bill requires municipalities and state agencies to designate someone to be the point person for handling public records request. Cities and towns would have to produce requested public records within 75 days. State agencies would have to provide the requested records within 60 days. The law establishes clear procedures for appealing denied requests. Supporters of reform, including Pam Wilmot of Common Cause of Massachusetts, say the House bill is a good start but are hoping to get tighter time frames and more cost containment inserted into the Senate bill.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee and is expected to be taken up by the full Senate as early as this month.

Taxi drivers sit during a September hearing at the State House on the regulation of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. (Steven Senne/AP)

Taxi drivers sit during a September hearing at the State House on the regulation of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. (Steven Senne/AP)

Ride-Hailing (H3702, H3351)

As more and more people use ride-hailing services to get around, calls for regulating the nascent industry have been made. A huge hearing in mid-September pitted regulated taxi drivers against the unregulated ride-hailing industry, most notably Uber and Lyft. The taxi drivers argued their livelihoods are at risk since the ride-hailing drivers are not subject to the same rules. The ride-hailing drivers say they’re OK with some regulations but don’t want the emerging industry to be hamstrung.

The Legislature’s Financial Services Committee is still considering what to do. House 3702, filed by Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton) and Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester), would impose tougher regulations, including fingerprinting of drivers and price controls.

House 3351, filed by Gov. Baker, would put ride-hailing drivers under the purview of the Department of Public Utilities and require them to carry $1 million worth of insurance.

Transgender Rights (S735, H1577)

The Transgender Rights bill passed back in 2011 stopped short of extending protections in the area of public accommodations. Opponents argued that to do so would compromise privacy in restrooms, locker rooms and other single-gender facilities. Supporters have been urging passage of a bill that would extend the protections where the 2011 law did not.

While the Senate is thought to be solidly behind the expanded law, House Speaker DeLeo, who has said he supports expansion, is currently checking with his members to see where they stand. It’s likely there are enough votes to pass the measure, but it remains to be seen if two-thirds of the members support it in order to override a possible gubernatorial veto. DeLeo is unlikely to green-light the bill for debate until he knows the Legislature could override.

For his part, Gov. Baker has neither opposed nor embraced the expansion. When asked on Monday where he stands, the governor said he doesn’t believe people should be discriminated against, and that “the devil is in the details.” He said he looks forward to the Legislature continuing to work through the issue.

Handheld Cellphone Use (S2032, H3315)

The Senate version of this bill is teed up for possible debate Jan. 21. It establishes fines from $100 to $500 for any driver caught talking on a cellphone without using a hands-free device.

A similar bill has been meandering through the House.

Pay Equity (S983 H1733)

This bill is expected to come up for full debate in the Senate on Jan. 28. The bill requires men and women be paid the same for equal work and allows employees to share pay information with coworkers without fear of reprisal from their employer.

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