State House News Service Weekly Roundup
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 12, 2017...The stage was set this week for what could be an awkward two weeks as senators prepare for their annual budgeting exercise knowing whatever they approve appears unlikely to stand up to the stress test it will go through in negotiations with the House later this spring.Recap and analysis of the week in state government.
But even the state's latest mini budget crisis couldn't compete for oxygen with the conflagration that engulfed the nation's capital and had tongues wagging 450 miles north, up the I-95 corridor, after President Donald Trump swung the ax that landed on FBI Director James Comey.
Comey's firing led to breathless questioning and speculating about the president's motives, conflicting accounts from the White House of how and why it happened, and a made-for-SNL moment starring Sean Spicer emerging from some shrubbery ordering camera lights killed before he would take any questions.
Gov. Charlie Baker said he was “shocked” by the Comey firing, and joined with the state's all-Democrat Congressional delegation and Attorney General Maura Healey in calling for the FBI's investigation into Trump campaign ties with Russia to be transferred to an independent authority.
“Can you believe what's happening?” a flabbergasted state Sen. Linda Forry asked a reporter.
The Comey flap also seemed to draw attention away from the fate of the American Health Care Act in the U.S. Senate, where U.S. Sen. Edward Markey equated attempts by Republicans to strike a deal that would appease all factions of the GOP to “looking for a unicorn.”
While cable news flickered in the background this week, Beacon Hill's top three elected leaders got it started by commiserating in House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office over the state of the state's financial affairs.
“There were no answers today other than, I think, a shared commitment to find the right way forward," Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said after the meeting of minds resulted in a number of theories being batted around as to why, in a period of economic growth, the state seems to lurch from budget crisis to budget crisis.
Baker said he's working through a solution to the $462 million shortfall in revenues hoping against hope that May tax collections will alleviate some of the pressure on this year's state budget.
But things could be worse. Again, just look down I-95 where Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy is confronting his own state's revenue shortfall by emptying the Nutmeg State reserves and proposing to pull back on local aid payments. It hasn't gotten that bad here ... yet.
But the hole already dug means that as things stand now tax revenue would have to grow by almost 5.8 percent next year to make the math on the House's budget and the one filed by Baker add up. Given recent history, that would be like betting on Pablo Sandoval to steal 50 bases next year.
With the Senate prepared to released its budget plan next Tuesday and commence debate a week later Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said it's full steam ahead, and any adjustments that need to be made can be made later in conference committee negotiations with the House.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey confirmed it's “likely” that will happen.
Whether Senate leaders will propose new taxes in their budget to offset the slow revenue growth, consider tax changes through amendment or forego what would surely become a two-against-one fight with DeLeo and Baker is fueling some of the intrigue ahead of the budget release.
Baker said a proposed tax on sugary drinks – a modified version of former Gov. Deval Patrick's perennially rejected candy and soda sales tax – is a non-starter in his eyes with two strikes against it, one being that it's a tax of any kind and secondly, it hits poorer families harder than others.
The soda tax was just one of the ideas being pitched feverishly at the State House where advocates filed in and out of hearing rooms and public spaces pushing for everything from historic tax credits to an end to forced child marriages.
It wasn't all talk and no action, though.
The House gathered to consider the first significant, discretionary bill - apart from controversial pay raises for elected officials and judges - to be put before members this session – a bill of rights for pregnant workers.
The branch unanimously supported the legislation that had been carefully crafted after its demise last session to win the backing of the business community, and Gov. Baker indicated that barring any major changes made by the Senate - that's usually a good possibility - he would sign it.
The bill requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, including paid or unpaid time off, a temporary transfer to less strenuous duties, more frequent breaks or modified work schedules.
The measure should be a slam dunk in the Senate, and as long as the branches can iron out any differences Speaker DeLeo could cross off one of the few priorities he outlined at the start of the session.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, meanwhile, told a group of education reformers not to hold their breath for majors reforms to the state's testing regime, district accountability system or school funding formulas until after the 2018 elections.
Rosenberg, at a luncheon with Democrats for Education Reform, said it would be a “mistake” for Beacon Hill to wade into another controversial education debate this session after last year's ballot fight over charters left some scarring.
Instead, Rosenberg wants everyone to united behind passing the so-called millionaires tax at the ballot box in 2018, without which the state pretty much lacks the cashflow to follow through on ideas like universal pre-kindergarten or a revamped Chapter 70 funding formula.
For the income surtax, officially known as the Fair Share Amendment, to even reach the ballot, though, lawmakers will have to take one more vote to advance it to the ballot.
With the support of both Rosenberg and DeLeo and not enough turnover in the body to suggest a different result from last year, getting the votes to make that happen should not be a problem. Rosenberg, however, was in no rush this week to check that off his list.
The Senate president presides over the Constitutional Convention, but when he convened the joint gathering of the House and Senate Wednesday for the first time this session, the lawmakers who did show up may have blinked and missed it.
The convention was immediately recessed until June 14 without any consideration of the Fair Share Amendment, or other proposed changes to the constitution.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Washington overshadows Boston again as Comey firing lights a fire under state Democrats.
During an announcement on Thursday of the state's fiscal 2018 capital plan, Speaker Robert DeLeo listed areas where Massachusetts is "ranked first." "Whether it's education, the environment, the U.S. News and World Report -- yes, and you're a part of that, as well," DeLeo said as Gov. Charlie Baker leaned toward the mic to add "innovation" to the list. Laughing, DeLeo said, "See the way he's like with me? See what I mean?" [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]