The Legislature's Got A Big To-Do List. Here Are The 5 Most Pressing ItemsPlay
Many folks see the month of July as a time to slow down and enjoy the summer weather. The opposite happens on Beacon Hill.
State legislators are now shifting into high gear, trying to finish up work on important bills before formal sessions for the year end on July 31. (They will continue to meet in “informal” sessions right through the first week of 2017, but only non-controversial issues can be taken up during informals, provided there are no objections expressed by any member.)
The legislative rush is complicated this year by three different factors.
-- First, the Democratic and Republican national conventions. In 2008 and 2012, the DNC and the RNC held their respective presidential nominating conventions in late August and early September, meaning for state reps and senators, the month of July was a clean slate in terms of scheduling sessions. Lawmakers were still free to hit the Cape or the Berkshires on the balmy July weekends, while the end-of-term sessions played out on the weekdays.
This year is different. There will be fits and starts of legislative activity as the building more or less shuts down from July 18-21, while Republicans are in Cleveland, and again from July 25-28 when the Democrats gather in Philadelphia. To compensate for that, House and Senate leaders have blocked out pretty much every weekday after the Fourth of July to meet in formal session, through July 15. In between the convention weeks, the House has blocked out Saturday, July 23, as a possible day to meet, while the Senate could spend the 23rd and 24th at the State House. And it’s a safe bet the building will be buzzing on the final weekend of the month, as sessions are slated for Saturday, July 30, and Sunday, July 31.
-- The second complicating factor: Simmering tensions between the House and the Senate over joint rules continue to hamper the ability to get some things done. Senators, including Senate President Stan Rosenberg, have expressed frustration their chamber has not been able to move ahead with their priorities, because legislation had been bogged down in joint committees, which have more House members than Senate members.
-- Third, the downward projections in revenues had made it difficult for conferees to develop a final compromise state budget, although an agreement was finally reached Wednesday, and may be accepted by the House and Senate Thursday. The Legislature usually likes to have the budget resolved well before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, freeing up their attention for other major bills still in the works.
So with those challenges in mind, here are the five most pressing items on the Legislature’s to-do list:
Economic Development Bill: (H 4413) This bill to promote job creation, workforce development and infrastructure improvements is awaiting action by both the House and Senate. The bill is currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee and Speaker Robert DeLeo says the full House will take up the matter next week. Gov. Charlie Baker’s original proposal was for $918 million over a period of five years. The redraft that came out of the Committee on House Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets scaled that back to $594 million over three years.
Provisions of the bill include $300 million in capital dollars for the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, $71 million for national manufacturing innovation matching grants and $45 million for Workforce Skills Capital Grants. The bill would also allow individuals to take up to a $1,000 tax deduction for contributions made to a college savings program. Married couples would be able to deduct $2,000.
Missing from the bill is a call for a “sales tax free” weekend. Legislative leaders have expressed concern that given the latest downturn in state revenues, the state cannot afford to give up the roughly $27 million in sales tax that would be lost if the holiday were held this summer.
Transportation Network Companies (known as the Uber Bill): (H 4064) (S 2371) Passed by a 139-14 vote in the House in March and a 34-2 vote in the Senate on Wednesday. Both versions are likely headed toward a conference committee.
This issue received a lot of attention last fall when cab drivers and drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft jammed Gardner Auditorium in the State House.
The cabbies contend the unregulated so-called TNC drivers are putting them out of business, while the TNC drivers fear over-regulation could stifle industry growth. Both the House- and Senate-passed versions create a state division tasked with overseeing TNC drivers. The division would issue permits and make sure drivers comply with rules and regulations. Both branches also stopped short of requiring TNC drivers be fingerprinted, which is required in some communities (like Boston) for taxi drivers.
The major difference between the House and Senate versions is that the House created a five-year prohibition on TNC drivers not registered as liveries from picking up passengers at Logan Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, throwing a bone to taxi drivers. The Senate version creates no such carve out.
Energy Bill: (H 4385) (S 2372) The House passed its version of the bill by a 154-1 vote in early June. The Senate is scheduled to take it up on Thursday and, like most other pieces of legislation, it will likely be up to a conference committee to work out the differences between the two branches.
Already those differences are beginning to emerge. For instance: The Senate proposal calls for utilities to solicit contracts of 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. The House version set the wind target at 1,200 megawatts. The Senate bill also calls for utilities to procure 1,500 megawatts of clean energy from hydro, onshore wind, solar and other renewable sources.
Energy has been a top priority of the governor, who proposed an omnibus bill he termed “the combo platter,” which would reduce the state’s carbon footprint and stabilize costs for consumers tapping into various power sources. His bill authorized long-term contracts for large-scale hydroelectricity to be brought into Massachusetts, and he encouraged lawmakers to throw offshore wind power into the mix, which they did.
Energy has become more important of an issue with the eventual shuttering of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant and other fossil fuel plants, which will remove 10,000 megawatts from the grid. Owners of existing fossil fuel power plants have launched an active public campaign opposing the bill while hydro companies have banded together to support it.
Transgender Public Accommodations: (S 735) (H 4343) This is another bill that is currently in a conference committee. It prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity. The big hurdle was cleared June 1, when the House passed the measure by a vote of 116-36 -- more than enough to override a gubernatorial veto, should one be issued.
The differences between the House and Senate versions center on the effective date, and the so called “House Language,” which would require the attorney general to issue regulations for dealing with anyone who asserts gender identity for an improper purpose. This was included as a response to opponents of the law who claimed sex offenders would be protected were they to masquerade as someone of the opposite sex in order to gain access to bathrooms and locker rooms. Senate President Rosenberg has said he finds the House language unnecessary, but harmless.
Advocates for the bill are confident it will ultimately make it to the governor’s desk, but it could be drawn out until later in July. Supporters could be playing out the clock in order to make it harder for opponents of the law to successfully place a repeal initiative on this November’s ballot.
Pay Equity: (S 2107) The Senate unanimously approved the bill in January, and it is still awaiting action in the House. The bill would further define “comparable work,” allow employees to discuss salaries with fellow employees without fear of being penalized by their employers, and increase penalties for pay equity violations.
Both House and Senate leaders have flagged the bill as a priority this session. On Monday, Speaker DeLeo said, "I am hard at work on it with various groups and I am hopeful that we can get it done by the end of July."
The bill has been opposed by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, while dozens of other groups have formed a coalition in support. AIM has stated the organization unequivocally supports pay equality among men and women, but say the bill primarily benefits lawyers. Supporters of the bill say they are close to addressing AIM’s concerns, and believe the bill will be enacted before the end of July.
This segment aired on June 30, 2016.