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House Speaker DeLeo Asks For Halt To Pot Negotiations Until State Budget Is Worked Out

Legislative discussions over how to change the voter-approved law legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts are on hold until a compromise is first reached on a new state budget.

On Wednesday night, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) directed House conferees working on a compromise marijuana bill to suspend negotiations, following a report in the State House News Service that said a resolution of the state budget for Fiscal Year 2018 was being held up until the marijuana bill was resolved.

"The budget and marijuana negotiations were never linked by the House, nor should they be," DeLeo said in a written statement.

"Tying unrelated negotiations together for political leverage does a disservice to the residents of the Commonwealth," he added. DeLeo also went on to say he's calling for suspension of marijuana negotiations to remove any distractions and because of the critical needs that hinge on the budget.

DeLeo's counterpart, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), disagrees that both issues cannot be worked on at the same time.

"The Senate has not and will not link the budget and marijuana negotiations. Period," said Rosenberg. "The Senate is fully committed to continuing negotiations on both the budget and marijuana legislation simultaneously."

Legislative action on a budget and the marijuana bill has been at a standstill as two separate conference committees worked behind closed doors to reach agreement on their respective bills.

The State House News Service reported Wednesday afternoon that the budget and marijuana bills had become "inextricably linked," and cited unnamed legislative sources as saying a budget compromise is contingent on both branches "first agreeing to the parameters of legal marijuana oversight and taxation."

The budget should have been in place by July 1, the start of the state's fiscal year, but it has been delayed due to uncertainty over state revenues.

Last month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a $5.15 billion interim budget that pays the state's bills through the end of July.

Legislative leaders had set a June 30 deadline for finishing work on a bill that makes changes to the marijuana bill, but no compromise had been reached by that date. Conferees on the marijuana bill had been meeting on Wednesday until DeLeo called for suspension of talks.

The lack of a bill making changes to the marijuana law pleases supporters of the referendum that legalized recreational cannabis.

"The law passed by voters in November remains on the books," said Jim Borghesani of the Yes on 4 Coalition. "It's a well-crafted, effective law. Time will determine what changes may or may not be made to that law."

Baker said Thursday that while he is not one to tell legislators how to do their jobs, he hopes that sometime soon he'll have a budget and marijuana bill on his desk to review.

"I do know that they are continuing to talk, as they keep asking us questions about one detail or another, which is a promising sign, but ... they need to get something to our desk so we can review it and respond accordingly," he said.

As for whether the budget and the marijuana bill should be intertwined, Baker said he doesn't care how the Legislature does it.

"Frankly, I don't think most people outside this building care much about how they do it either," the governor said. "I think everybody would just like to see both of these issues put to bed so we can get on with implementing the marijuana law and get on with implementing the Fiscal '18 budget."

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Steve Brown Twitter Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's State House reporter.

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