BOSTON (SHNS) – 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.
Wednesday night, the Senate turned to more of a potpourri of issues ranging from small business relief and sales tax modernization to sports betting and airplane noise.
Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen made several impassioned speeches Wednesday night as she sought adoption of amendments that she said were essential to easing the pandemic’s toll on bars, pubs and other small businesses, like waiving the remittance of excise tax for meals for a period of months.
Most were rejected, though DiZoglio pressed for the Senate to take recorded votes on many of them.
Throughout her remarks, DiZoglio expressed frustration with the slow pace of action from the Legislature to address businesses that have been harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic and government mandates. She said she could not wait for the conference committee that has been negotiating similar issues since July as part of a stalled economic development bill to reach a compromise and risk not getting relief for businesses in her district done by the end of the year.
“I know, Mr. Chairman, that we’re not interested in passing a lot of outside sections in this budget, but I challenge this membership to think about what our response is going to be after we take this vote, and our local pub owners and their families, our local bar owners and their families, and their employees who have been out of work for months, come to us and ask why we didn’t take a vote when we had the chance,” DiZoglio said. She added, “We’re going to say, well we didn’t think it was the right time? That we prefer not to do these things in a budget? We had an opportunity to discuss some of these things in economic development, and we didn’t. We had an opportunity to do these things for months. Where is the restaurant relief? Where is the small business relief? Tied up in conference committee? Still?”
When DiZoglio asked Rodrigues, who is one of three senators privy to the months-long private talks, if he could guarantee that an economic development conference bill would be voted on before the end of the year, Rodrigues leaned on a Beacon Hill tradition of not discussing negotiations publicly.
“As we all know, we cannot comment on deliberations within conference committees,” he said, adding that the conference committee is still negotiating.
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.
He and other senators talked about the importance of capturing revenue from an activity that nearby states have already authorized. Sen. Patrick O’Connor called it “free money” and Sen. Marc Pacheco said Massachusetts is “losing all of this revenue that we are going to need” as residents find other states that will take their bets.
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.
“If we don’t do it in this bill, we should absolutely get to work before we end this year to make sure this is done,” Pacheco said. “I am very concerned that we are going to be missing the boat on this.”
After the session, Spilka was non-committal when asked if there was a chance the Senate would take sports betting back up before the session ends in early January.
“Right now, the focus is going to be on conference committees, resolving the budget, and COVID. We’ll see though,” she said.
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 targetted 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.
“This home is unique and can continue to be a place of solace if we ensure they have the necessary resources for quality care. We have also seen there is not enough support for residents and families, nowhere for them to turn, no mechanism if problems arise before they grow. This amendment aims to fix that, or begin to fix that,” Velis said.
As was the case last week when the House debated its budget, an amendment that would expand access to emergency paid sick time did not get a vote. Sen. Jason Lewis, who filed the amendment with the support of at least 13 other senators, withdrew the amendment before it was considered but asked to speak to its importance.
Lewis said the Senate would not be adopting his amendment but that an identical proposal was pending before the Senate Ways and Means Committee as a standalone piece of legislation and said he hoped that would advance.
(Sam Doran contributed reporting.)