BOSTON (SHNS) – When representatives head to the House floor Thursday to debate a more than $4.8 billion government operations bond bill, they will also be asked to decide if they should flex their political muscle by ordering a temporary halt on building new prison and jail space in Massachusetts.
The House Ways and Means Committee wove a five-year moratorium on construction or expansion of correctional facilities into a borrowing bill designed to fund work on state buildings and other public sector infrastructure. By doing so, representatives would put into play a measure that could upend the Baker administration’s consideration of a new women’s prison in Norfolk.
Representatives on the panel voted on Tuesday to advance the bond bill (H 4790), their version of a marijuana industry regulations bill (H 4791) that cleared the Senate last month, and three other bills dealing with bilingual ballots in Malden (H 4793), special needs trusts for disabled seniors (H 4792) and a Pepperell land transfer (H 4794).
The moratorium language in the House’s general government bond bill would prohibit any state or public agency from studying, planning, designing or constructing new correctional facilities or from performing any renovation, conversion or repair that would expand inmate capacity at an existing correctional facility.
Supporters of the pause have argued that it would redirect focus on support services rather than incarceration, particularly amid a years-long stretch of declining inmate populations across Massachusetts.
Last year, the Baker administration was studying the idea of constructing a new women’s prison in Norfolk to replace MCI-Framingham, the oldest women’s prison of its kind in the nation. Early estimates indicated the project could cost up to $50 million.
The administration has not yet decided if it will go forward with a replacement of the Framingham prison or alter its approach to women’s correctional facilities. Last month, the Department of Correction announced it would wind down operations at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole citing decreased housing needs.
The bond bill carries a slightly lower bottom line than the version Gov. Charlie Baker filed in January (H 4336). Most of the borrowing authorized would go toward maintenance and modernization projects in state buildings overseen by the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.
That includes $820 million for health and human services facilities, $750 million for public higher education campuses, $530 million for public safety and security facilities, and $675 million for the judiciary, among other apportionments.
Massachusetts owns and operates nearly 1,700 buildings, representing about 61 million square feet of space. Two-thirds of the state’s footprint was constructed before 1975.
Cabinet secretaries told lawmakers in February the borrowing bill would also address cybersecurity needs, provide food security infrastructure grants and help the state achieve its carbon emissions reduction targets by improving energy efficiency in state buildings.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Ronald Mariano said the government bond bill will feature in a Thursday formal session, the second of two back-to-back formals planned for this week.
On Wednesday, representatives will dive into the House’s response to a Senate-approved bill (S 2801) aimed at clearing obstacles and achieving racial and economic equity in the blooming marijuana industry.
Like the version that cleared the Senate in April, the House’s cannabis industry bill seeks to ramp up oversight on the host community agreements that marijuana businesses are required to strike with municipalities and to promote greater diversity in the industry.
The House legislation would steer 15 percent of the money collected from marijuana licensing toward a new social equity trust fund, which would offer grants and loans to boost participation in the cannabis field among populations disproportionately harmed by enforcement when the substance was illegal. The Senate bill created a similar fund but called for seeding it with 10 percent of licensing revenue.
Additionally, the legislation would create a process for cities and towns to authorize “marijuana social consumption establishments,” sometimes referred to as “pot cafes,” where patrons could both purchase and use marijuana products. The Cannabis Control Commission has already authorized such businesses in its regulations.
House leaders gave representatives until 5 p.m. Tuesday to file amendments to both the cannabis industry bill up for debate the next day and to the government bond bill on tap for Thursday. By that deadline, lawmakers filed 23 amendments to the marijuana bill and 256 amendments to the borrowing bill.
The Ways and Means Committee voted 24-0 in favor of advancing the marijuana bill with seven representatives reserving their rights instead of taking a position. A committee spokesperson declined to name those lawmakers and said the panel only provides aggregate tallies.
All four of the other bills the committee advanced Tuesday cleared with all 31 representatives in support.