Lots to do before state legislators begin their holiday
In typical, eleventh-hour fashion, lawmakers wrote a frenetic final chapter to the 2011 legislative session, blazing through bills to introduce casino gambling, protect transgender residents, and implement pension reforms that have languished for years on Beacon Hill.
In a cyclone of legislating that began last Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers also enacted bills to redraw state and Congressional political districts, which will set the political landscape for a decade; to impose harsh penalties for forced labor or prostitution; and to raise the minimum retirement age for state workers to 60.
The mad rush to beat a midnight deadline on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving — it's the midpoint of the two-year session, with formal meetings due to resume in January — left breathless lawmakers touting accomplishments that will become 2012 campaign staples along with previous efforts to overhaul state alimony laws, impose strict limits on the use of recommendations in hiring for state jobs, reorganize the state's judicial bureaucracy, and strengthen the hand of municipal officials in health care negotiations with local unions.
As the House and Senate depart for a seven-week recess, they've got more left on their plate for year two of the session. A priority identified as a savior for small businesses, controlling the skyrocketing cost of health care, remains unaddressed.
Gov. Deval Patrick identified health care cost containment in his January inaugural address, pledging to reform medical malpractice laws and overhaul the health care payment and delivery system. He and his top deputies spent months demanding urgent action, calling on lawmakers to send him a bill this year. He has since softened his position, seeking a commitment from legislative leaders to act on payment reform legislation in January, although he's declined to say whether he has received such a promise.
Senate President Therese Murray, who has also pinpointed health care payment reform as a top priority this session, said she's not disappointed with the hold-up on legislation.
"That's not an easy fix. That's a very difficult issue to deal with, and David Seltz from my office is our health care policy person. Most of the staff continue to work on that," she said. Looking forward to 2012, Murray added, "We're going to be addressing the high cost of energy as well ... working with Senator Downing on more competition in the electric industry."
Asked about taking final action on a gambling bill, Murray said with a smile, "I don't want to talk to you guys about gaming ever again.
"Now that it's out of the hands of the Legislature," she said, gesturing toward the governor's State House suite, "you can go down the hall, and then you can let us know how it's working."
Also unresolved is an increasing clamor for a government solution to what has been widely identified as a daunting, economy-hampering backlog of road, bridge, and rail repairs — exacerbated by a multi-billion dollar debt burden on the transportation system. The governor and top lawmakers have repeatedly called for an "adult conversation" on the possibility of raising new revenue to pay for a multi-billion-dollar backlog of transportation needs, but leaders who pitched a "reform before revenue" mantra in 2009 have not presented a plan or a timetable for one, even with T fares poised for an increase next year.
Also left unaddressed by the House this year was a bill touted by Senate President Therese Murray to rewrite the state's finance laws, implement performance management metrics for state agencies, and implement more accurate measures to project the economic impact of state policies. A Senate-passed bill to redesign the state's network of services for truants, runaways, and children in need of services has also yet to emerge for House consideration.
The year's legislative activity included an extraordinary reliance on the work of the Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over legislation on transgender non-discrimination, sentencing, alimony, human-trafficking and court reorganization. The House-controlled committee is co-chaired by Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea) and Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton).
The fate of Senate plans to make wholesale changes to the state's criminal statutes — enhancing authorities' wiretapping power, reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, reconfiguring drug weights in sentencing, and restricting parole for third-time violent offenders — remains murky. The House voted 142-12 Wednesday night to pass a sharply pared-down version of that plan, limiting it only to the crackdown on repeat offenders, but the Senate will insist on its own, more comprehensive version, likely kicking a resolution into the new year.
"We look forward to conferencing this over the next two months so that when we come back in January we have a bill we can vote on," Murray said.
Although it may not appear in any campaign literature, lawmakers also agreed to a substantial change to the state's alcohol statutes, raising the limit on alcohol licenses available to chains and food stores. The bill advanced suddenly this fall at the urging of package stores, retailers, and supermarkets, who were threatening to take a more sweeping proposal to the 2012 ballot.
In addition to health care payment reform, other key pieces of the governor's agenda have languished this year, including his call to implement legislation to crack down on gun crimes and youth violence, as well as to support changes in sentencing laws to deemphasize mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and those that occur in school zones.
Some of the most substantial policymaking this year occurred in the near-constant budgeting by the House and Senate, which have made it clear that passing spending plans every one to two months — often laden with policy initiatives — is their preferred means of managing the state's fiscal condition. Legislative leaders also held firm on a pledge to hold the line on taxes, two years after embracing a sales tax increase.
As they head for their recess, lawmakers may also receive some welcome news from Patrick administration budget officials, who are on track to certify an automatic reduction in the income tax for Massachusetts workers next month. Patrick's budget chief Jay Gonzalez said the reductions are likely, thanks to sharply increasing revenue collections that have outpaced inflation.
Lawmakers also spent their final hours passing proposals backed by labor unions, who earlier in the year were enraged at efforts to curb collective bargaining power of some local employees and who protested pension system reforms in the past month. Two bills — one to codify the use of so-called evergreen clauses in collective bargaining contracts, the other to empower MBTA workers to collectively bargain for supplemental health care benefits — headed to the governor on the final night of the session.