While most of the nation is celebrating a new year and a fresh start, at the still shuttered-to-the-public Massachusetts State House, a heap of old business remains on the table — business critical not just to the year ahead but also to the path the Commonwealth will take for years to come.
The essential job of legislating doesn’t take a break for pandemics. And it certainly doesn’t take a break for election years — like the one we’ve just entered.
Or at least, that’s the theory. Of course, there will still be the annual state budget to deal with, some $2.5 billion more in federal funds to be allocated — and a session set to wrap up formal business by July 31 so lawmakers can hit the campaign trail. Add in a soupçon of rivalry between the legislative branches and a pinch of petulance among some lawmakers — oh, and a lame-duck governor — and it’s easy to see how this winter’s slow-simmering stew could become one hot mess by July.
So a few items first that shouldn’t wait:
▪ Election reforms. At the start of the pandemic and in anticipation of the 2020 presidential election, lawmakers wisely brought the state’s absentee voting laws into the 21st century, allowing no-excuses mail-in voting and, for the first time, early voting in primary elections. The reforms, however, were only temporary — extended once to include last year’s municipal elections. But the law died on Dec. 15, and efforts to extend it permanently have stalled. The Senate, in its bill (passed last October), wants to add same-day voter registration to the package; the House, which voted earlier for most of those reforms, seems not amenable to the voter registration piece. All those Democrats squabbling over the shape of voting reforms is just unseemly.
▪ Mental health parity has been the law of the land at least on paper for some time, but making it a reality remains a constant battle. The pandemic has accelerated the demand for services — a demand that has too often gone unfulfilled. A Senate-passed bill would mandate coverage for mental health checkups on a par with physical exams. It also attempts to deal with the growing crisis of emergency room “boarding” of those in the throes of a mental health crisis by exempting hospitals looking to expand psychiatric services and beds from the state’s Determination of Need process. It would also allocate American Rescue Plan funds for an online portal allowing health care professionals to access available psychiatric beds.
▪ Soldiers’ Home governance. There was no shortage of investigations in the wake of 76 COVID-related deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020. A sound legislative proposal soon followed for fixing the chain-of-command issues that were a part of this preventable tragedy. It includes requiring all future superintendents of the state’s two veterans homes to be licensed nursing home administrators, replacing the position of secretary of veterans’ services with a cabinet-level secretary of veterans affairs, creating an ombudsman for vets in the homes and an emergency hotline for family and staff to report their concerns. The bill has yet to come up for a vote on the floor of either branch.
They aren’t, of course, the only legislative items. The future of police reform, currently very much a work in progress, ought to remain front and center on the Legislature’s agenda.
Too often on Beacon Hill, when the going gets politically tough, the tough set up a commission. That’s exactly what happened at the end of 2020, when lawmakers agreed to the core ingredients in a police reform package (the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has already begun its work) but left a host of other thorny issues to a hodge-podge of commissions and task forces, some of them scheduled to report at the end of 2021. Commissions on qualified immunity, the use of facial recognition technology by police, a possible statewide police cadet program, and civil service laws as they relate to police hiring (the latter’s deadline now extended to March 30) can all provide fodder for future legislation. But that assumes those reports, which occupied the time and energy of dozens of participants, aren’t simply left to gather dust.
Yet another special commission assigned to “make recommendations on improving, modernizing, and developing comprehensive protocols for the training of state and county correction officers and juvenile detention officers” could provide the basis for extending similar — and much needed — reforms to the state’s correctional system.
The Legislature is scheduled to get back to the business of lawmaking on Wednesday, but is also expected to remain the only legislative body in the nation still operating in a state house that remains closed to the public — as it has been for more than 650 days.
“The building is still closed because we’re concerned about the safety of about 600 folks who work there,” House Speaker Ron Mariano said in defense of that closure during an appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record” in mid-December.
Yes, these are still perilous times, but around the state, hundreds of public buildings — including Boston City Hall — have found a way to open and stay safe. The Legislature should set a goal to reopen soon after the current surge subsides. Making the “people’s house” accessible to the people should be a priority, and that means creating protocols to make it safe.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.