Last week the Massachusetts Legislature had one of its most productive 24 hours in recent memory.
Going into early Thursday morning, the House and Senate put landmark school-funding reform legislation on the governor’s desk, along with a bill aimed at curbing distracted driving that has languished for nearly a decade, child wellness legislation, and a bill to ban all flavored tobacco and vaping products.
Those unfamiliar with the Beacon Hill way of doing things might legitimately ask why legislative leaders have to wait until the inevitable last day before recess to get things done. Tradition? Dysfunction? Maybe a combination of both.
And in the dysfunctional category, there’s the matter of a $1 billion spending bill that would officially close the books on fiscal 2019 — which, let’s not forget, ended June 30. You’d think lawmakers would jump at the chance to allocate the extra revenue that flowed into state coffers in the last few months of that fiscal year. The spending bill includes $50 million to accelerate MBTA improvements, $17 million for scholarships, and $20 million for the Community Preservation Fund, and it allocates $356 million to the state’s rainy day fund.
Not closing the state’s books in a timely fashion has consequences — and as the last state in the nation to actually pass a state budget for the current fiscal year, it’s also embarrassing. Bond-rating agencies do look at such lapses unfavorably. But more immediately, the state comptroller has already warned that Massachusetts is losing out on interest on the money that isn’t yet in the rainy day fund at the rate of about $30,000 a day — so, yes, more than $1 million so far.
Sometimes lawmaking isn’t all that pretty. And perhaps the real pre-Thanksgiving recess marvel is how much did get accomplished.
The education bill, accurately dubbed the Student Opportunity Act, will provide more than $1.5 billion in new education funding over the next seven years, some of it targeted to help students in low-income communities and English-language learners in the hope of closing the well-documented achievement gap. It also more fully funds special-education programs and sets a three-year timetable to reimburse school districts for students who attend charter schools. That might help ease the animus that has too often hindered the expansion of charter schools.
The Child Wellness Bill, intended to improve access to behavioral and mental health services for children and require insurers to provide accurate listings of providers, was another welcomed accomplishment.
Passage of legislation to ban all flavored tobacco and vaping products and set a 75 percent tax on vaping materials will put in place a solid regulatory framework when Governor Charlie Baker’s vaping ban expires next month. Its ban on menthol cigarettes, to take effect June 1, 2020, ought to give retailers time to adjust and sell off existing stock.
The distracted driving bill that forbids virtually all use of handheld devices while driving and backs that up with fines and insurance surcharges couldn’t come soon enough. And the data collection it requires ought to offer at least some protection against racial profiling — the concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts notwithstanding.
Sure, there will be plenty of critical issues for lawmakers to tackle when they return to formal sessions in January: that enormously complicated transportation package, a bill intended to help curb prescription drug costs and — yet again, and no less critical — the governor’s Housing Choice bill, which could help communities make real progress in housing construction.
There is, of course, still the possibility legislative leaders will come to their senses and reach agreement sooner rather than later on that long overdue 2019 spending bill. That would be a sign that people of good will can put aside their differences — and their egos — when taxpayer dollars are going to waste.
For now, the 11th-hour progress on Beacon Hill is welcome — especially the investment in children, the Commonwealth’s future. Now let’s see our state leaders keep up the pace.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial listed the wrong date for the end of fiscal year 2019.