It has quickly become the craziest of Decembers on Beacon Hill, and a long-awaited economic development bill could end up getting lost in the shuffle as a result.
Yes, help is apparently on the way from Washington. Factions in Congress have reached a compromise on a federal economic relief package that totals nearly $900 billion.
Meanwhile, in Boston, municipal officials and small-business advocates eagerly await a smaller economic stimulus bill from the State House, one that would unlock more than $450 million in state borrowing authority over five years. Some of this money would go to routine recapitalizations of worthy programs. But a portion, perhaps more than $75 million, would provide direct relief for businesses hit hard by COVID-19, including through a new restaurant relief fund.
The state and federal bills differ in many ways, beyond just the size. But they share at least one major similarity: They have been under discussion for many months. Congress struck its deal without a moment to spare. Now, it is the state Legislature’s turn to race against the clock.
Feel free to chalk up the dysfunction in Congress to partisan, election year bickering — particularly between the Democratic-led House and GOP-led Senate. Here in Massachusetts, where Democrats control both branches of the Legislature, the situation isn’t as clear-cut.
But the frustration is palpable nonetheless. Consider that more than 50 mayors and town managers united last week behind a letter to state legislative leaders, calling for the rapid passage of the economic development bond bill. As far as Boston Mayor Martin J.Walsh is concerned, this money should be hitting the streets, not stuck in a conference committee. (While the state’s unemployment rate has fallen steadily since its June peak, the pandemic continues to hammer many small businesses.)
So what’s the hold up? If there’s a major sticking point for the “ec dev” bill, the two lead negotiators won’t say. But that’s not surprising. They know the first rule of conference committee: What happens in conference committee stays there.
For the record, both Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Eric Lesser remain positive about their chances to finish this before the clock strikes midnight at the end of the first Tuesday in January and this most unusual of two-year legislative sessions comes to a close.
“I’m still very hopeful that we can get something done before the end of the session,” Michlewitz said in an interview.
Ditto for his counterpart in the Senate. From Lesser: “We remain optimistic and committed to finding common ground. It’s not lost on anyone that our families and small businesses need the help.”
The biggest challenge isn’t figuring out how best to spend the state’s bond money. It’s maneuvering around the policy differences packed into the House and Senate bills.
Take the section that would legalize sports betting, a priority for the House. The Senate, as a group, remains wary. The city’s pro teams are now lobbying together to push this over the goal line. So are the friends of the MGM casino in Springfield, such as Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and the Springfield chamber of commerce.
Sarno sent a letter last week to legislative leaders, pleading MGM’s case. The casino industry had a run of back luck since COVID-19 hit, with closures and time restrictions causing revenues to slump. This former cash cow now needs state help, too. Sports betting would be one more draw.
There are other policy differences to be ironed out. The Senate wants to crack down on patent trolls, for example, while the House wants to cap commissions that delivery services charge restaurants, a change rejected by the Senate in a budget amendment vote last month. Even the long-stalled Housing Choice legislation to reduce the threshold for many land-use votes to pass at the local level, tucked in there at Governor Charlie Baker’s urging, involves a sticking point or two.
Another potentially confounding factor is Michlewitz’s demanding “day job” as chair of the House Ways and Means committee, the point person for House Speaker Bob DeLeo in budget negotiations. The pandemic and recession have made it tougher than ever to predict the state’s tax revenue. Equally as challenging to predict: what additional assistance, if any, might be coming from Congress. In large part because of this uncertainty, the Legislature just wrapped up the state budget a few weeks ago for a fiscal year that began back in July. And it’s still technically not done: Michlewitz and his colleagues need to deal with veto overrides this week.
Then there’s this new distraction: DeLeo’s pending departure, rumored for weeks, became real on Friday when he filed an ethics disclosure saying he is talking to Northeastern University about a job. His top lieutenant and would-be successor, Representative Ron Mariano, now faces a possible fight for the throne posed by Representative Russell Holmes.
The Legislature also still has several other far-reaching bills, such as those dealing with transportation and health care, to get done this month during a normally quiet time when just about everyone would rather be sipping eggnog and unwrapping gifts by the fire.
Speaking of holiday presents, one reason the economic bond bill might be the last major legislation to get done is because the House and Senate versions are packed with goodies for everyone — rewards that can be handed out or rescinded by the powers-that-be until the end. This veritable Santa’s workshop could end up containing money for everything from the New England Aquarium to the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, to senior housing in Lenox or the Salisbury Beach carousel.
There have been dramas surrounding economic development legislation on Beacon Hill before — but this year is decidedly different. This might be the first time such a bill is not a sure thing, although it has never been more necessary.