Recap and analysis of the week in state government
There were supposed to be cows and chickens and plenty of photo-ops.
Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues were scheduled to spend Friday with more than three dozen of their legislative colleagues, touring a series of farms in western Massachusetts to see firsthand the challenges facing the state’s agricultural entrepreneurs.
But the legislative remake of “City Slickers” was not to be, washed out by a combination of Tropical Storm Elsa and fiscal responsibilities that conspired to keep the North End and Westport Democrats on Beacon Hill explaining the intricacies of a $48.1 billion budget deal to their respective branches.
“We’ve been through a lot, and we’ve come out of the last year and a half in a stronger fiscal situation than any of us could have ever imagined,” Michlewitz told his colleagues from the House floor while introducing the bill on Friday afternoon.
Eight days late but nowhere near a dollar short, the conference committee led by the two Ways and Means chairmen filed a compromise budget on Thursday that tried to account for months of surging tax collections by slotting an additional $4.2 billion more into the revenue column for the fiscal 2022 state budget.
Democrats used some of that flexibility to increase bottom-line spending by about $300 million, but they also made an extra $250 million deposit into the pension fund, created a $350 million Student Opportunity Act trust fund that can be drawn on in future years, and invested significantly in the state’s “rainy day” fund.
By the time the House and Senate unanimously passed the budget on Friday, Massachusetts was one of just three states with a fiscal year that started on July 1 to not have an annual spending plan in place. But with the bill on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, it’s unlikely to be the last.
The budget conference committee met the 8 p.m. deadline to file its report in order for the bill to be considered the following day, as stipulated by joint rules. But how about 48 hours to read and consider any piece of legislation before it lands on the House floor for a vote?
Rep. Christopher Markey thought that sounded like a good idea when he filed it as an amendment to the proposed House rules on Wednesday, but it was shot down like other proposals aimed at increasing transparency in the House – most notably a proposal to allow people to know how lawmakers vote on bills in committee.
That issue of making committee votes public remains a live one in talks between the House and Senate regarding separate rules governing the more active, policy-making joint committees, and this week’s votes gave little indication that House leaders were prepared to budge.
The new House rules won’t take effect until October, and in the interim the branch voted to extend its emergency pandemic rules that allow lawmakers to stay away from the State House and participate remotely.
For all the noise made and sweating caused by groups like Act on Mass over transparency, reform advocates were unable to attract more than a few votes from progressives like Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven of Somerville and Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge, or Rep. Tami Gouveia, who is already on her way out to run for lieutenant governor. They actually found more common cause with Republicans.
Even Progressive Caucus leaders like Rep. Jack Lewis argued against one of the reformers top priorities – the reinstatement of term limits on the speaker.
If progressive advocates can’t sway House leadership, does Baker have a chance? The Republican governor continued his ARPA offensive, deploying two Cabinet secretaries to pitch the virtues of his $2.9 billion plan to spend a little more than half of American Rescue Plan Act stimulus money that’s sitting in a fund.
Administration and finance officials went first, selling the $1 billion plan to tackle myriad housing problems in Massachusetts, followed at the end of the week by energy and environmental officials who extolled the importance of proposed investments in, well, the environment, and said climate problems demand solutions now.
Mariano said Baker’s plan would get its due when hearings kick off this month, but the Republican governor has found a few people who might be in his corner.
Rep. Bud Williams, the vice chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, has seldom been shy about his affection for the governor, and didn’t hold back during an event in Springfield focused on a summer recreation program for urban youth.
The Democrat gave the governor “all A-pluses this semester” as he praised his commitment to fostering homeownership for people of color.
“Let’s get behind this man. Homeownership. We have to create wealth,” Williams said.
Even Attorney General Maura Healey threw her support behind Baker’s idea to use some of the money for behavioral health and substance abuse, making a rare joint appearance with the governor to announce a settlement with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.
If Healey and Baker do both run for governor next year, remember July 8. Baker had plenty of kind words for Healey’s stick-to-it-ness and her team’s ability to extract additional concessions from the Oxycontin manufacturer after Massachusetts and two dozen other states rejected an earlier bankruptcy settlement offer.
The new agreement being presented for the court’s review would see Purdue Pharma dissolved, the Sacklers pay $4.3 billion to states and victims’ families and millions of documents released disclosing marketing and sales strategies for the addictive opioid. Massachusetts would receive $90 million for substance use treatment and prevention.
A highlight of her two terms in office, the Purdue Pharma litigation will be front and center should she decide to run for governor next year. But as she weighs her options and, perhaps, waits to see what Baker does, former state Rep. Geoff Diehl decided he was done assessing his odds.
Diehl, a Whitman Republican and former Trump surrogate in Massachusetts, launched his campaign for the Republican nomination on July 4th.
Diehl has run and lost for state Senate and U.S. Senate since first entering public office, but now has his eyes set on breaking the losing streak and putting his desk in the corner office.
He said had he been governor these past few years, Massachusetts never would have signed up for the multi-state Transportation Climate Initiative, which is projected to increase gas prices over time, and schools and businesses would have opened much sooner during the pandemic.
Whether there’s a conservative lane that leads to the governor’s office can be debated, but Diehl will surely keep Baker or Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on their toes, depending on who runs.
Meanwhile, Transportation for Massachusetts head Christopher Dempsey stepped down from the advocacy group last week to focus officially on a run for auditor in 2022.
But before that contest, it appears there may be a special election brewing in the First Suffolk and Middlesex Senate District where Sen. Joseph Boncore has been calling close friends and colleagues with the news that he expects to be named the next CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
First Bob DeLeo and now Boncore. The winds of change are blowing in Winthrop.