Deadline pressure coming to bear on Beacon Hill

Boston Statehouse
state house

BOSTON (SHNS) Five hundred and seventy-four days after kicking off the 2017-2018 session, the Massachusetts House and Senate head into Tuesday, July 31 with only a few hours to tie up the many loose ends on bills that legislative leaders have left to the proverbial last minute.

Lawmakers over the past week or so have found common ground on major bills addressing environmental spending, automatic voter registration, taxation and regulation of short-term rentals, new civics education requirements, consumer credit protections, veterans benefits and an annual state budget.

On Monday night, legislative negotiators also agreed on a clean energy bill, which is expected to win approval in both branches on Tuesday.

But while Democrats control both branches and Republicans pose no real threat to their policy and spending preferences, Democrats also struggled before delivering their latest-in-the-nation state budget to Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill arrived so late that they ceded some leverage on policy to the governor.

And major business remains unfinished. Lawmakers are hoping a midnight deadline will force compromise on health care, education funding, economic growth, opioid addiction and treatment, and animal welfare bills. If agreements are reached, lawmakers will have little time to review them before voting.

Because of a new rule banning the formation of new negotiating panels on major bills after July 17, the opioid and economic development bills are being worked out by what are essentially shadow conference committees. The jobs bills feature language authorizing the Aug. 11-12 sales tax holiday and the Senate bill includes an overhaul of laws governing non-compete agreements between employers and employees.

Failure to strike eleventh hour deals on the major bills could prove embarrassing since legislators launched the session in January 2017 by voting large pay increases for themselves, saying the boost in compensation was overdue and deserved given the scope of their responsibilities.

There’s been growing opposition on Beacon Hill to the health care bill, with business groups and others warning the proposals will add costs to the system.

“There’s always hope, but it’s not looking so good,” Second Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Paul Donato told the News Service about the health care talks after the House recessed around 8:30 p.m. on Monday.

The House and Senate have differed widely in their approaches to shift around the economics of health care in Massachusetts. The Senate proposed creating a public option for employer-sponsored health insurance and a set of parameters ensuring that health providers are paid at 90 percent of the statewide relative price. The House opted for a $330 million assessment on insurers and high-paid providers to finance grants to community hospitals.

Baker has a lot on the line Tuesday, having expended considerable energy pushing for new tools to target the deadly opioid addiction crisis and for a new law to make it easier to build housing in communities across Massachusetts.

Heading into Tuesday, the governor would need to somehow run his housing bill through both chambers, which would be a major accomplishment given the scope of opinions within the Legislature about the preferred direction of housing and land use policy in Massachusetts.

Time is also again running out on Senate-passed legislation targeting the use of handheld devices by drivers, which has been held up in the House despite a general consensus that the state’s ban on texting while driving is being ignored by many motorists.

Another bill to keep an eye out for on Tuesday would ban the use of conversion therapy to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of minors. The House passed its conversion therapy bill (H 4664) 137-14 in late June but that bill and a Senate version (S 64) have failed to move out of the Senate Rules Committee, whose chairman Sen. Mark Montigny is the sponsor of the Senate bill.

As the calendar turns to August, expect the news to ramp up around ballot questions calling for nurse staffing requirements in hospitals and rolling back the transgender public accommodations law signed by Gov. Baker in 2016.

Democratic primary voters five weeks from Tuesday will also choose a nominee from among 10 candidates vying to succeed outgoing U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and pick between gubernatorial candidates Jay Gonzalez and Robert Massie and secretary of state candidates Josh Zakim and William Galvin, the incumbent.

The Senate gavels in at 11 a.m. and the House at noon, with sessions scheduled to end when the clock strikes midnight. Twice-a-week informal sessions, which most legislators do not attend, are scheduled for the remainder of 2018, giving the Legislature an opportunity to move bills as long as no one objects.

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