State House Roundup: Time's Up
For a legislative session that has been heavy on the windup and light on the follow-through, the first week of spring proved to be a fitting metaphor for the climate on Beacon Hill as temperatures outside climbed while a frost settled in the State House.
Outside the corridors of the capitol, Gov. Deval Patrick spent the last days of winter in central America pulling the levers of the Panama Canal. The governor no longer has to concern himself with Massachusetts Republicans and his one-time rival Charlie Baker who spent their time gearing up for their party’s nominating convention in Boston where Baker is set to become the GOP’s endorsed nominee for the second time in as many cycles.
Deadlines, like rules on Beacon Hill, are apparently made to be extended, or suspended. But Rep. Thomas Conroy found out the hard way that sometimes missing a deadline has consequences.
Conroy, a Wayland Democrat who is running for state treasurer, came to the State House on Thursday prepared to unveil the minimum wage and unemployment insurance reform bill that he has been working on with House Speaker Robert DeLeo for months. He even penned and posted a letter on a popular liberal blog predicting the bill would win the endorsement from his Labor Committee and move quickly to the House floor for a vote.
So you can imagine his frustration when Senate President Therese Murray threw the brakes on his well-laid plans, derailing a House request for more time to consider the bills and driving home the point that the Senate has already acted on these issues and doesn’t want to start the process over with a new House bill.
What was expected to be a routine request by Conroy and the House-controlled Labor and Workforce Development for a few extra days to report on minimum wage and UI reform bill became the focal point for parliamentary game of chicken between the House and Senate. Without an extension, Conroy had to cancel his plans.
“This is insider, petty, politics at its very worst, and it's happening at the expense of working families in Massachusetts,” Conroy said in an unusually charged statement.
The end result was that progress toward a minimum wage increase and unemployment insurance reform ground to halt, an impasse based not in disagreement over whether to go to $10.50 or $11 an hour, or whether to index wages to inflation, but over process and internal politics. Who will blink first?
The minimum wage bill wasn’t the only proposal caught up in March Madness. Thursday might have marked the long-awaited first day of spring, but committee chairmen had another date circled on their calendars. Wednesday was “Joint Rule 10 Day,” the biennial reporting deadline for all legislative committees to make recommendations on timely filed bills that have ostensibly been under review for more than a year.
Some bills made it through the committee process and survived to see another day, including measures to mandate MassHealth coverage of postpartum depression screenings and to extend health and safety protections to more than 150,000 state employees under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Hundreds more bills were sent to “study,” an effective rejection by lawmakers for this session. Included in this batch was another try by proponents after losing at the ballot box in 2012 to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients.
And then were the bills that House and Senate committee chairs were just not yet ready to make a call on. Extension orders with hundreds of proposals were filed. Lawmakers requested more time for review, more time to seek compromise, or maybe just more time to stall.
Major issues, some raised a far back as January of last year, fell into this third category, including Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed reorganization of local housing authorities, the speaker’s much-talked-about gun violence initiative and charter school expansion bills.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Alice Peisch, the co-chairs of the Education Committee, asked for just one more week to resolve what appeared from the outside to be deeply seeded animosity between Chang-Diaz and proponents of lifting the charter school enrollment cap in underperforming school districts.
Chang-Diaz, the Boston Democrat put on the hot seat by charter advocates as the one who needs to be convinced, said her overtures to resolve the question of how to balance funding for traditional public schools and charters have been met with “consistent ‘no’s’ from the charter advocate community.” Meanwhile, leaders of those groups said her ideas to ask charter schools to fork over cash to make up for insufficient state school funding are unworkable.
Chang-Diaz said her “door is wide open,” but just who’s walking through and whether they are speaking the same language will have to wait until next week.
Baker, as it turns out, loves the idea of raising the charter cap. And he may just talk about it on Saturday when he takes the stage at the Agganis Arena. But the storyline heading into Bakerpalooza was more about whether he can mollify the more conservative activists in his party to avoid a primary with Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher.
His former running mate Richard Tisei - a gay, married Republican who is making a second run at Congress on the North Shore - didn’t help his pal when he tried to politely boycott the Republican convention over what he considers the party’s non-inclusive, anti-LGBT platform. Instead of attending the convention, Tisei plans to spend his Saturday at a Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast in Danvers and collecting signatures at a Reading Market Basket to qualify for the ballot.
But the statement made by Tisei’s non-presence gave Democrats just the cudgel they were looking for to hammer at Baker, who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and in need of every Republican’s support if he hopes to win in November.
How Baker handles the situation Saturday will be telling of things to come.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Can’t agree on policy. Can’t agree on process. House and Senate hit speed bump on road to minimum wage hike while decisions on other major issues are similarly held off for another day.