Unfinished business on Beacon Hill looms over 2020

FILE PHOTOIn the upcoming 2020 session, lawmakers on Beacon Hill will be looking to tackle long-standing issues, such as transportation funding that may impact the MBTA Commuter Rail line that serves the region.

 

 

BOSTON – There are 213 days between New Year's Day and July 31, the final day for formal legislating in 2020. In that time, Massachusetts lawmakers hope to tackle what's left on their 2019-2020 session to-do lists, in addition to whatever else crops up unexpectedly as the session wears on.

The House and Senate took care of some items on the agendas that Democratic leaders sketched out last winter (Gov. Charlie Baker, too), but a number of heady issues remain unaddressed with seven months until the real work ends and campaign season really picks up.

Seven months from the finish line, here's a look at seven major issues to watch during the second half of the 191st General Court, which officially kicks off with light sessions on New Year's Day morning. Whether or not the Legislature makes significant progress on these topics, they will be key factors in the final analysis of the two-year session's accomplishments:

Transportation Revenue – All eyes are on the House in the new year as members prepare to take up a transportation revenue debate they delayed from the fall. Key lawmakers have hinted an increase in the state's 24-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax will likely be a part of the package, but other proposals from higher fees on ride-hailing services to expanded roadway tolling may also be included in the bill. Any increase to the gas tax would be the first in Massachusetts since 2013. That history will hang over the next round of action: lawmakers raised the tax three cents and indexed it to increase alongside inflation, but voters repealed the latter half through a ballot question one year later. While the House prepares for the debate -- no bill has been unveiled yet, but Speaker Robert DeLeo said he is aiming for a vote in January -- Senate leaders have not shown their hand. President Karen Spilka has not yet committed to taking up the topic of transportation revenues in 2020, and the upper chamber's Transportation Committee chair, Sen. Joseph Boncore, said he expects any consideration to come after an informal transportation working group finishes its work at an undetermined time. Gov. Charlie Baker, meanwhile, has already outlined his opposition to any gas tax increase and to congestion pricing, a strategy of altering roadway tolls at different times of day that many transportation advocates back. Pressure has been growing on lawmakers to address the state's wide-ranging transportation needs, particularly after a string of developments in 2019. The Baker administration's study on roadway congestion concluded that already-bad traffic conditions are getting worse. A June derailment on the Red Line damaged aging MBTA infrastructure and created months of commuter headaches. An outside panel tapped in the wake of that incident concluded that T leaders have not prioritized safety culture, partly because of an overemphasis on reducing a repeated operating budget deficit while also pursuing capital investment. With Baker asserting the state already has enough revenue to tackle transportation needs, Democrats face pressure to work across branches to make sure they have the votes to overcome any vetoes, as well as the challenge of coming up with a plan that the electorate supports and which won't come back to haunt lawmakers when their names are up for re-election in November.

Climate Change – Eighty-one state lawmakers rang in 2019 by resolving to pursue a suite of climate policies, including moving the state to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The year brought youth climate strikes and clean energy pushes from municipal and business leaders but not, ultimately, completed climate legislation. The Senate is eyeing action in early 2020 on a bill that its Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee chairman, Sen. Michael Barrett, has suggested will address clean energy along with emissions from vehicles and buildings. Sen. Marc Pacheco, who chairs the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, has been beating the drum for action in that branch. The House, which passed a $1.3 billion borrowing bill in July to support municipal resiliency and adaptation projects, hasn't indicated if its members and leadership plan to embark on other efforts to produce and pass major climate legislation. The House's so-called GreenWorks bill, a priority of Speaker DeLeo's, has been sitting since its unanimous passage before the Senate Bonding Committee, chaired by Sen. Michael Moore. If a climate debate occurs in 2020, it will take place as South Shore residents and many elected officials continue to oppose the construction of a natural gas compressor station in Weymouth and as Massachusetts works with other states to build a regional cap-and-invest program aimed at cutting transportation emissions. The debate at the State House over actions that can be taken mostly within the state's borders comes amidst reports of progress, and setbacks, in the global effort to reduce emissions that scientists say are fueling climate change and rising sea levels.

Housing – In November 2018, eight months after the Housing Committee first endorsed Gov. Baker's proposal to lower the local voting threshold for zoning changes, its co-chair Rep. Kevin Honan said the bill would come up "early in the next session." A full year came and went with no action to advance Baker's bill -- or any other major housing production legislation -- until the committee again favorably reommended it as part of a mid-December 2019 package. As 2020 arrives, the push for action on housing now shifts to the two Ways and Means Committees and the Democrats that control them. The housing market in Massachusetts remains strained even after a $1.8 billion housing bond bill enacted in 2018, with the median home sale price up to $400,000 through October and report after report identifying a need for tens of thousands more units than the state currently has to offer. Baker's bill is not the only tool lawmakers can consider to address the challenge: the Housing Committee also advanced legislation to establish a statewide target of 427,000 new housing units by 2040, to require multi-family housing by right in MBTA communities, to increase residential density and more. In late January, the committee also plans to hear testimony on a push to revive local options for rent control, which was in place in three communities until a landlord-backed statewide ballot question banned the practice in 1994. "The housing crisis has moved into the middle class and is creeping up beyond the middle class," Rep. Nika Elugardo warned at an October rally in favor of her tenant protection legislation. "Now that so-called 'everyday people' are experiencing the pain of the housing crisis, people are beginning to question how we do business around here."

Health Care – After whiffing on a major health care reform last session, lawmakers have been slow to move on the renewed attempt they promised -- and there are no indications that the House, Senate and governor are even on the same page when it comes to health care. Gov. Baker rolled out his plan to address costs and quality in October, but the Democrats who control the Legislature gave it a mostly cool reception. Rep. Jennifer Benson, chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, had been leading the House's latest attempt to rein in health care costs and stabilize the marketplace, but she just announced she's got a new job and will be resigning in early January. Speaker DeLeo hasn't indicated who his new health care point person will be, or whether the House intends to make health care a central part of its work over the next few months. The Senate's plan, while not crystal clear, is a bit more evident. Senate President Spilka said in October that senators had been working "for months now" to craft health care legislation, with Health Care Financing chair Sen. Cindy Friedman and Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery chair Sen. Julian Cyr leading the effort. The Senate already passed a bill dealing specifically with prescription drug prices, and Spilka has suggested that her branch will address the issue in pieces rather than with one comprehensive bill, a strategy that could complicate things with the House. "I don't think any one bill can do it all," she said in October. Asked about the Senate's timeline for a health care bill, Spilka said, "when it's ready ... and we will see if we do it in parts or in whole."

Sports Betting/Gaming – At one point after the U.S. Supreme Court granted states the right to legalize sports betting, Massachusetts looked like it could be among the early adopters. The state's casinos, which aren't quite living up to their revenue projections, are eager for a new way to attract gamblers and Bay State sharps are looking forward to placing a bet without having to drive across state lines. But as other states raced forward -- New Hampshire this week joined Rhode Island in accepting wagers -- the issue has moved to the back burner on Beacon Hill. Led by Sen. Eric Lesser and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technology has been weighing the myriad issues that could come with a further expansion of gambling in Massachusetts. "It is an issue that has potentially broad social consequences, so it has to be done deliberately and properly," Lesser told the News Service in December. On top of the sports betting-specific questions the committee must answer -- how should wagers or winnings be taxed? Should college sports be open to betting? How accessible should betting platforms be? -- lawmakers have previously suggested they might address a more comprehensive scope of the gaming universe, including sports betting, daily fantasy sports and other forms of gaming and wagering, with legislation in the spring of 2020. Gov. Baker, who filed his own sports betting bill in January 2019 in hopes that people could bet by the start of the NFL season, has said he doesn't anticipate much from the Legislature until the session is nearly complete. "The session ends in July, but I would be very surprised if it got done before that," he said in October on WEEI.

Budgeting/Education Bill Implementation – Gov. Baker has until Jan. 22 to file his fiscal 2021 budget, a spending plan that will incorporate a newly lowered income tax rate of 5 percent. Next year's budget will be the first to feature the substantial new spending called for under the new education funding law, and advocates' eyes will be on how well the governor and lawmakers, especially Ways and Means chairs Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, can live up to the $1.5 billion, seven-year commitment without carving up other budget priorities. The law has no dedicated revenue source. Baker has characterized the investment as "a stretch on a $40 billion budget," but "not that big a stretch" on an incremental basis. "I certainly think what this means for us and for the Legislature on a go-forward basis, this is going to have to be sort of first-in when we make decisions about what the budget looks like," he said in November. With revenue growth projected to be much slower than in recent years, pouring money into K-12 education could squeeze other priorities. A tax revenue estimate developed by Michlewitz, Rodrigues and the administration is due by Jan. 15 and will shed light on how much the budget chiefs expect the fiscal picture to tighten in 2020. Flush with cash the past two years, the Massachusetts Legislature has still been the last in the country to finalize an annual budget, and a dispute this fall over a bill to allocate the fiscal 2019 surplus dragged for months. It remains to be seen how Michlewitz and Rodrigues will lead in a slowdown, but Rodrigues said in December he's confident the state will have enough money to meet its needs. "It's still growth," he said. "I've been around long enough that I've been here when there's been shrinkage, and we're not moving in that direction."

Jobs Bill – It's an even-numbered year, so chances are good that legislators will tackle an economic development/job creation bill before turning their attention to their re-election campaigns. In mid-December, Gov. Baker unveiled and signed his administration's updated economic development plan and laid the groundwork for an economic development borrowing bill worth hundreds of millions of dollars. "We'll file it shortly after the beginning of the new year," Baker said Dec. 13. "Our hope is that we get an early hearing and ... they will pass something that looks like the legislation that will enable the implementation of this plan." Once a bill is filed, the next steps will likely be up to the Economic Development Committee and co-chairs Ferrante and Lesser, each of whom has issued a statement reflecting their interest in passing a bill. With unemployment below 3 percent, the Massachusetts economy contracted in the third quarter largely due to constraints on the labor force that are holding back growth, economists said. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito put it this way: "We need to be a little selfish about the talent that we have here. We want to keep it here." The Baker administration signals in its plan that it intends to focus on the cost of doing business over the next three years, a message that the business community will welcome but which could run into obstacles in the Legislature. The plan also calls for steps to build on the growth in life sciences, advanced manufacturing, defense, and health care sectors and "aims to leverage emerging sectors like artificial intelligence and robotics."

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