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Massachusetts lawmakers fail to reach compromise on $3.8 billion spending bill before break

House and Senate leaders said they will continue to meet in closed-door talks.
House and Senate leaders said they will continue to meet in closed-door talks.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday failed to reach a deal on a nearly $4 billion spending bill before closing formal sessions for the year, leaving it unclear when the money will begin to flow to essential workers, local public health agencies, hospitals, and others buffeted by the pandemic.

House and Senate leaders, who for weeks targeted mid-November to reach a compromise on the legislation, said late Wednesday that they will continue to meet in closed-door talks, and raised the possibility that a deal between the chambers could emerge in upcoming informal sessions, which are typically sparsely attended.

But for now, billions of dollars in federal stimulus aid and state surplus funds will remain unspent despite months of prodding from Governor Charlie Baker and advocates to quickly begin seeding the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“They shouldn’t be sitting on money,” said Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “People in cities and towns across Massachusetts are waiting and hoping that in some way, shape, or form, they’ll be seeing these investments. . . . People desperately need these funds.”

Top officials acknowledged they fell short of their goal, even as they underscored a shared commitment to reaching a deal.

“It was unfortunate that we weren’t able to get it done today, but we can strike a deal at any time,” said Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman and lead negotiator on the spending bill.

The House and Senate unanimously passed differing versions of a $3.8 billion spending package in recent weeks, leaving just three days of formal talks before lawmakers hit their self-imposed deadline on Wednesday.

“Everyone wants to see us get this done, in both parties, in both branches,” said Michlewitz, a North End Democrat.

The impasse came amid a flurry of other activity in the State House. Legislators sent to Baker a bill that would redraw the boundaries of the state’s nine congressional districts for the next decade. House lawmakers also approved a bill designed to protect independent community hospitals, while the Senate passed a sweeping mental health measure.

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But the lack of a compromise on the spending bill loomed largest, especially as the Legislature enters a seven-week holiday break.

The spending package would use a combination of federal American Rescue Plan Act aid and state surplus funds, and would pump money into everything from community colleges and school HVAC systems to hospitals.

Legislative leaders have said they were in agreement on two major pillars: $500 million to fund one-time bonuses to essential workers, and another $500 million for the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.

Under the House proposal, “premium pay bonuses” would be targeted for low-income essential workers. The bill would set aside $460 million for those who make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit and worked in-person during the 16 months of the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency, with bonuses of as much as $2,000, depending on how many workers qualify.

Both chambers had feathered their versions of the bill with hundreds of earmarks for various projects, and dozens of policy changes, many of which did not appear in the other’s bill. And while they shared similar plans for where to spend money, they differed on how much.

The Senate plan, for example, dedicated an initial $400 million toward behavioral health initiatives — about $150 million more than the House. The House, meanwhile, put $270 million in payments toward hospitals, compared to the $200 million the Senate had initially set aside.

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Legislative rules require that formal sessions in the first year of the Legislature’s two-year session end on the third Wednesday in November, and lawmakers had repeatedly said their goal was to send an agreement on the spending package to Baker by that point.

Failing to do so Wednesday doesn’t necessarily doom the measure. Lawmakers have a history of passing significant legislation through informal sessions. But doing so comes with risk: One dissenting vote in an informal session can kill legislation.

“Over the coming days, we will keep our sleeves rolled up and work hard to resolve remaining differences,” Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the Senate budget chairman, said in a statement. “It is our goal to bring a resolution to the floor soon that takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The massive spending bill was just one measure in focus on Beacon Hill Wednesday.

The House and Senate each voted to pass a bill that would redraw the boundaries for the state’s nine congressional districts, with varying levels of drama. Shortly after the House approved the proposal, 151-8, several Democratic senators lined up in opposition, in part, because it would split Fall River and New Bedford — the South Coast’s largest cities — into separate districts.

The move had polarized local elected officials, and for some in the Senate, smacked of disregard for the region.

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“It continues to send the message to Southeastern Massachusetts that, ‘We in the metropolitan area of Boston . . . will use you when we need to but otherwise we will just continue to do what we want, when we want to.’ And that has to stop,” said Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat.

The Senate passed the redistricting bill, 26-13, with 12 Democrats voting against it.

The Legislature also agreed on the details of a bill requiring public schools to teach students about the history of genocides. School districts would need to file lesson plans every year with state education officials.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka — who her office said voted remotely Wednesday as she recovers from an illness — had tagged the bill as a priority in the wake of a scandal at Duxbury High School, where football players used antisemitic play calls, including “Auschwitz,” on the field.

The Senate also passed a mental health bill that aims to ensure parity between mental and physical health coverage. Unveiled last week, the measure would require coverage for free mental health exams just like annual physical exams, and also require insurance companies pay mental health clinicians rates on par with those paid to primary care providers. The legislation would carve out almost $122 million to recruit 2,000 mental health professionals.

On the House side, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a measure that increases oversight of hospital consolidation and aims to protect independent community hospitals, but has drawn heavy opposition from the state’s biggest health care provider.

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A priority for House Speaker Ronald Mariano, the bill targets what Mariano called a trend of large providers such as Mass General Brigham opening satellite facilities in the suburbs, where they compete with smaller community hospitals for patients with private insurance.

The bill would give the Health Policy Commission the authority to probe the potential market consequences of major hospital expansions that require an additional license.

“We can’t allow hospitals and health systems to simply open in various communities without undergoing due scrutiny,” Representative John J. Lawn, a Watertown Democrat, said before the House’s 158-1 vote. ”Nothing in this bill will prevent valuable and necessary projects from going through.”

Mass General Brigham moved quickly to mobilize against the legislation, criticizing it as a “misguided eleventh-hour intervention” into the state’s decades-old regulatory review process, particularly as it plans to build or expand surgery centers in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn.

Both the behavioral health and hospital bills now head to the other chamber, where lawmakers can act on them anytime through July 31.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which included material from the State House News Service.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.