The 190th biennium session of the state Legislature — which begins Wednesday — won't be much different than the 189th. There will only be 12 new representatives and three new senators, meaning 185 legislators are back after being reelected (a majority without opposition) in November.
Don’t expect a whole lot to be accomplished Wednesday -- or for several weeks, for that matter. The opening day of the session is more ceremonial than substantive, with the building teeming with relatives and friends of lawmakers on hand to see their loved ones get sworn into office.
There will be Democratic and Republican caucuses to elect party leaders prior to the session. No surprises are expected. Senate Democrats will choose Sen. Stan Rosenberg, of Amherst, to be their leader, and he will begin his second term as Senate president. The six Senate Republicans will choose Sen. Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester. Tarr’s counterpart in the House will be Rep. Brad Jones, of North Reading, who’s been the Republican leader since 2003, while House Democrats will once again select Rep. Robert DeLeo, of Winthrop, as their leader, and he will continue as speaker.
When DeLeo was first elected speaker in 2009, there was a House rule limiting the speaker to eight years in office, but that rule was scrubbed in 2015, enabling DeLeo to continue in the post. DeLeo is on track to become the longest-serving speaker, provided he serves another year and a half in the position.
It will be a few weeks before the Legislature shifts into higher gear, with hearings held on the first of thousands of bills that must be filed by Jan. 20. A majority of those will likely be routine, but some will pertain to some big issues that are likely to dominate the session. Here are four major issues:
Voters dropped this issue on lawmakers’ laps when they approved recreational marijuana in a November referendum. The Legislature has been promising changes to the new law for months, and just last week made their first change: delaying for six months the Jan. 1, 2018, opening of marijuana retail shops. The change came during an informal session with few legislators on hand, which was unusual since it's rare that controversial subjects are taken up during such sessions.
House and Senate leaders are promising a swift look at the new law, and vow to respect the will of the voters. A new legislative Committee on Marijuana will be set up to draft pot-related bills. But backers of the referendum have expressed concern that the Legislature may try to do more than just make technical changes to the law, and alter it considerably.
Besides the start date, lawmakers may:
- Change, or more likely reduce, the number of homegrown plants allowed (currently six per person, or 12 per household).
- Increase the marijuana tax, currently between 10 percent and 12 percent, which is low compared to other states that have legalized marijuana. Some legislators fear that’s not enough to even cover the cost of operating the soon-to-be-created Cannabis Control Commission, the regulatory body that will oversee the new marijuana industry.
- Create laws pertaining to edible marijuana products.
- Create laws governing the advertising of marijuana products and businesses.
A major overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system has been on hold for several sessions, but it appears this may be the year legislators finally tackle the issue. The Legislature turned to the independent Council of State Governments’ Justice Center to prepare an analysis of the state’s criminal justice system. The final report should be ready by mid-January, and could serve as a blueprint for new legislation. An interim report released in December focused on so-called “back-end” issues such as probation and parole, which come into play after an individual has served their sentence. Advocates for current and former prisoners fear the report does not do enough to address front-end issues, including mandatory minimum sentences, bail reform and programs that are an alternative to incarceration.
Keeping the state in the black has been a key issue legislators tackle each year. Since the new fiscal year begins July 1, the first half of the calendar year is a mixture of the constant trimming of the budget sails for the present fiscal year, while charting a course for the upcoming fiscal year.
Presently, the Legislature and governor are at odds over how dire the state’s finances really are. As the fiscal year moves ahead, revenue projections give way to hard revenue figures, so a truer financial picture comes into focus. In December, Gov. Charlie Baker, citing sluggish revenue growth, implemented unilateral budget cuts. Legislative leaders contend those cuts are premature, and are contemplating returning the funding in the form of a supplemental budget, which even if vetoed by Baker would likely be overridden by the Legislature.
As the give and take over FY '17 plays out, the groundwork for the FY '18 budget is taking shape. The governor will present his version of the budget on Jan. 25. Budget hearings will be held around the state, and the House will likely pass its version of what will likely be a $40 billion plan in late April. The Senate will debate it in May, and the final compromise will be reached sometime in June.
Look for the Legislature to take up education reform and funding in the upcoming session. A Senate-led initiative linking the lifting of a cap on charter schools to appropriating more money for all public schools was unable to gain any traction last year. That move was seen as an alternative to the ultimately failed ballot referendum to lift the cap on charter schools.
Still to be determined: Given the aversion by key legislators to raising new revenues, where would funds for increased school spending come from?
In 2015, a special commission unveiled a report calling for an update on the foundation budget, the state formula for determining the minimum it costs districts to educate their students. That report concluded the state’s foundation budget formula underestimated the cost of education by about $1 billion per year.