Slow start to busy seven-month session stretch

Political News

BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–The second leg of the Legislature’s two-year session officially kicked off on Wednesday marking the start of a seven-month stretch that will test the ability of lawmakers to juggle predictable duties like the passage of an annual budget with the challenges of reaching compromise on leadership priorities like voting reform, mental health access and the acceleration of offshore wind energy.

The year also begins against a backdrop of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and concerns about the safety of in-person schooling, testing capacity, and booster vaccination rates. House Speaker Ron Mariano this week questioned what the administration was doing to respond to the latest surge, and whether additional funding might be necessary for testing or the distribution of masks, and Senate President Karen Spilka has joined others in calling for Baker to reinstitute a statewide indoor mask mandate.

But while COVID-19 will continue to occupy the attention of lawmakers, many legislators, operating with newly drawn districts, have already begun thinking about reelection or running for another office and will be looking to make progress on myriad issues that would provide grist for their campaigns later in the year.

Both branches met quickly on Wednesday morning, moving through the steps necessary to get the second year of the session underway, but eschewing some of the ceremonial trappings that typically took place before COVID-19 made larger gatherings, even for the vaccinated, seem risky. Sen. Michael Rodrigues, the Senate chair of Ways and Means, was on hand for the session, and said his focus to start the year is on “gearing up for the fiscal 2023 budget.”

Legislative leaders and the Baker administration must by Jan. 15 agree to an estimate of tax revenues for the next fiscal year that will inform budget decisions in the months ahead. In the coming weeks, Gov. Charlie Baker will deliver his final State of the Commonwealth address and before the end of the month file a budget for fiscal year 2023 that will be his last chance to shape the way the state invests billions of dollars in growing tax revenues.

Baker begins 2022 staring down the final year of his governorship, and hoping to make progress on issues like sports betting and drugged driving prevention. Baker has also said he will propose a major health care bill early this year, and he’s likely to also soon file an annual borrowing bill for the Chapter 90 local road repair program that is often among the first on the annual docket for lawmakers.

On the Legislature’s side of the State House, most committees face a Feb. 2 deadline to report out any bills currently before them for consideration and lawmakers will most likely want to pass legislation as soon as possible setting a date for the primary elections later this year. “Just in general, I would like to see committees start releasing more bills for us to act upon,” Sen. Michael Moore said after Wednesday’s session.

Sen. William Brownsberger, who presided over the start of the new year in the Senate, said he’d like to see the Legislature “make some more progress in the criminal justice space, correctional space,” and also flagged civil liberties and archaic laws that have never been repealed as personal priorities. “Sodomy still on the books as a felony in this commonwealth. We should address that, especially with the Supreme Court changing,” the third-ranking member of the Senate said.

Neither Mariano nor Spilka addressed their respective chambers to start the new year, but many of their priorities are already known. Mariano was among the few House members at Wednesday’s session.

Mariano has identified the continued development of the offshore wind industry as a goal, and in a statement he told the News Service that Rep. Jeff Roy, the co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, is “finalizing” a bill to make changes to the process used to solicit bids for wind power projects. “The House of Representatives has been a leader in offshore wind and will continue to advance this industry in Massachusetts. If we want to lead our clean energy future, we must improve our bidding process to remain competitive with neighboring states, invest in our port infrastructure, and incentivize economic development opportunities,” Mariano said.

The Quincy Democrat also said he has a bill on his radar to reform the oversight and management of the state’s two soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea after an early pandemic outbreak of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ home brought new scrutiny on its management. And the House passed the speaker’s bill last year to provide more scrutiny of large hospital expansions into the suburbs.

Spilka, in a statement, said that in addition to the ever-evolving response to the COVID-19 pandemic she hopes in 2022 to see voting and mental health access legislation signed into law. The Senate passed legislation on both of those topics last year. She also said she was interested in seeing the Senate tackle challenges confronting families with regard to child care and consider “reforms to the criminal legal system and how it disproportionately impacts underserved youth and adults, as well as revisit the Senate’s prescription drug cost containment legislation, known as the PACT Act.” “All of these priorities will be considered in the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate will continue to work with our partners in government at every level to ensure residents’ voices are heard as we continue to navigate through this pandemic,” Spilka said.

While legislators have adapted to new working conditions on Beacon Hill during the pandemic, the State House remains the last state capitol building in the country completely closed to the public and most staff and legislators continue to work and vote remotely.

Several senators said these circumstances make the process more challenging than under normal conditions. Moore and Sen. John Keenan both said they both look forward to the day when they can again have regular face-to-face interactions with their colleagues to engage on bills they’ve filed and would like to see move forward. “Really hope that we will be doing that in person, that’s my biggest hope,” Moore said. The emergence of the omicron variant, however, has added to the slow-moving plans to reopen the State House. “Unfortunately this omicron reared its head a little bit and kind of put a little bit of a twist to it, but we’ll be fine,” Rodrigues said about the start of the second year of the session.

Rodrigues said his committee has been taking meetings about the possible legalization of sports betting, which passed the House but has again stalled in the Senate, and said he will continue to urge the Baker administration to “step it up” with regard to COVID-19 testing availability, which he said is the most common concern he’s hearing from constituents. The Westport Democrat also downplayed any urgency to developing a plan to spend the state’s remaining $2.25 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds, despite some senators indicating they would support voting on a second ARPA spending bill this year. “We still have three years before we even have to allocate it, so we’ll do so when we think the time is right,” Rodrigues said.

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