Following two days of deliberations, the Massachusetts Senate wrapped up its work late Wednesday night on a roughly $46 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began four and a half months ago.
The vote to approve the budget was unanimous, but the debate Wednesday night revealed some of the friction that exists as lawmakers seek to marshal state government to address economic and societal problems the pandemic has highlighted. On issues like transportation and economic development, senators repeatedly said the Legislature needs to do more if Massachusetts is to rebound after the pandemic and some lamented the lack of significant action from Beacon Hill during the extended session.
"The budget, I think, is a really strong, responsive budget to the situation at hand and trying to really help the residents of the commonwealth," Senate President Karen Spilka said after the Senate adjourned around 10:30 p.m.
The budget will soon head to a conference committee, a group of three senators and three representatives who will meet behind closed doors to hash out the differences between the two budget bills and put a compromise version up for an up-or-down vote of both branches.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said Wednesday night he is hopeful the negotiations will be quick and painless, but major issues like policing reform, health care reform and climate change policy have been stuck in conference committees without signs of life since late July.
"I think we realize that we need to get it done. It is the middle of November and we have six or seven weeks left in the session," Spilka said when asked what gives leadership confidence it can resolve the budget while other major matters are left unresolved. "I believe we will get it done."
As soon as the overdue fiscal year 2021 budget is done, Rodrigues and his House counterpart Rep. Aaron Michlewitz will turn their attention to the fiscal year 2022 budget process, which typically begins in December with a hearing on projected tax collections and flows to a January agreement on the consensus revenue figure and the late January filing of the governor's budget proposal.
If talks drag on, state government would need another temporary budget to pass to keep services flowing and the state payroll funded. The current interim budget includes about enough money to get through November.
Earlier in the day Wednesday, the Senate codified and expanded abortion access rights in Massachusetts when it adopted an amendment based on the so-called ROE Act that has been discussed for much of the session amid growing worries that a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority will erode or overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
An amendment from Minority Leader Bruce Tarr to legalize sports wagering in Massachusetts was rejected without a roll call vote. The amendment would have allowed casinos, racetracks and online operators to apply for a license to take bets on sports, and Tarr said his amendment would have designated the revenue from initial application fees for a new economic recovery fund.
Estimates for annual revenue from sports betting in Massachusetts have ranged from about $20 million to $35 million. The state's two casinos and slots parlor bring in a cumulative average of about $21 million each month. The House legalized sports betting in its economic development bill, but the Senate has appeared far less interested in authorizing sports betting.
Senators adopted an amendment from Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Boncore establishing a new structure of higher fees for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
"First, this new fee structure attempts to address congestion and incentivize public transit usage through fees targeted at consumer behavior. Second, it redirects these funds directly to the CTF, providing much-needed revenues to our anemic public transportation system," Boncore said. He added, "Even after the adoption of this language, there is still much work to be done. We need a New Deal for transportation in this commonwealth."
The Senate also adopted an amendment from Sen. John Velis of Westfield that would provide $200,000 for the creation of an ombudsman's office at the Holyoke Soliders' Home, where more than 75 veterans died of COVID-19 amid an outbreak at the state-overseen facility.