fb-pixel Skip to main content

Massachusetts lawmakers are fighting the clock to finish their term. But they’re facing an unusual crush of circumstances.

Activity at the Massachusetts State House is expected to be fevered in the next few weeks.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There are looming Supreme Court decisions. A tax relief plan has yet to materialize. And there’s mounting pressure to act, including from a lame-duck governor hoping to button up the last of his legislative legacy.

With 42 days to complete major business, the Massachusetts Legislature’s typical late-session logjam of budget negotiations and unfinished work is being complicated by an unusual crush of circumstances.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano has privately urged lawmakers to speed the pace of their closed-door negotiations, on issues such as climate and energy legislation. Democratic leaders say they’re crafting various contingency plans for if, or when, Supreme Court decisions sweeping away abortion rights and gun safety requirements upend decades-old law.

Advertisement



The glut of proposals, both known and unknown, virtually guarantees there will be a torrent of major new laws put on the books this summer. It also raises the potential for a cluttered cutting room floor come Aug. 1.

“When you’re trying to make things happen and you don’t have the ability to just say, ‘Do it,’ it’s frustrating as hell,” Mariano said in an interview. The timing of the Supreme Court decisions — due within days — is “awful,” he said. “It’s the worst. Because we’re gone July 31. People have elections. No one wants to come back in the midst of a fight if they have one. It’s a challenge.”

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said the Senate is ready for a “busy and productive” final six weeks, including confronting “events outside our control.”

Perhaps of the highest interest to many on and off Beacon Hill: a potential tax relief package.

Lawmakers have been pressed for months by Governor Charlie Baker, business leaders, and others to ease the burden on taxpayers at a time when inflation is running at a 40-year high and state revenues have far exceeded expectations. For Baker, who’s not seeking reelection, it’s also topped his final-year agenda: He tied a $700 million package of tax breaks onto his final budget proposal, and has repeatedly, and publicly, prodded the Legislature to take action.

Advertisement



They’ve signaled they will, but if they have a plan, it’s still hiding under the golden dome. Mariano has indicated he’s interested in a proposal that mixes reshaping parts of the tax code with providing immediate relief.

He and other legislative leaders have repeatedly rejected suspending the state’s gas tax, but the Quincy Democrat said addressing other fuel costs, such as home heating oil, could be on the table. He, like Baker, has also expressed support for revising Massachusetts’ estate tax and its $1 million threshold, the lowest in the country.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said at a New England Council event last week that should the Democratic-controlled Legislature not act, it would be a poor look after last year advancing a constitutional amendment known as the “millionaires tax.”

The proposal, which is on the November ballot, would impose a 4 percent surtax on annual earnings above $1 million, and has drawn steep opposition from within the business community, including Hurst’s organization.

“If [Democrats] don’t do it,” Hurst said of providing tax relief, “that’s giving the voters more reason to say: ‘Who is more important here, the taxpayer or the tax collector?’ ”

Mariano said failing to reach a tax relief deal would be a “missed opportunity,” and given the few weeks remaining, suggested the chambers must work together to shape its details.

Advertisement



“The last thing you want to do is have that die on the table,” Mariano said. “We’d look foolish. You can’t even give money away.”

House and Senate leaders are also weighing a host of major spending decisions before the end of July. State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chief, and his Senate counterpart, Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, are leading negotiations over the $50 billion state budget, the sprawling spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The two are also discussing what to do with more than $2 billion in unused federal stimulus aid. And they’re in talks about how to spend what could be a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.

“This is still a lot of different balls in the air here that we’re trying to juggle,” Michlewitz told reporters last week.

In most years, the budget proposal eats up much of the oxygen on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers view it not only as the one sure thing to pass — lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to do so — but a vehicle for any number of priorities.

This year, that could include a response to the Supreme Court potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. A provision added to the Senate’s version of the spending bill aims to protect those here who perform abortions or gender-affirming care from being prosecuted in states that may restrict such procedures. That includes shielding them from penalties, spikes in medical insurance, or being extradited to states that would seek to punish them.

Advertisement



But Mariano last week raised the prospect of pursuing a separate, more sprawling bill depending on how the Supreme Court ultimately rules in place of “piecemeal and patchwork” effort.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, the Senate chairman of the judiciary committee, cast doubt on that, saying the time crunch and “range of views” among lawmakers make it unlikely the chambers would debate an abortion protections bill separate from what the Senate already passed.

The Supreme Court could also soon rule on — and, many legal observers expect, strike down — a New York law that puts strict limits on people carrying a handgun outside their home.

Such a ruling could also invalidate parts of Massachusetts’ similarly written law, and a top House lawmaker said the Legislature could “move very quickly in response to” a decision. But what a legislative package could look like depends heavily on how, exactly, the court rules.

Much else remains unsettled. The House last month voted to criminalize so-called revenge porn, something 48 other states have already outlawed, but the Senate has yet to take up what, too, has been a Baker priority. That chamber also has not taken action yet on another House bill — one of Mariano’s top interests — that would give the state health commission more authority to scrutinize hospital expansion plans.

Eldridge said generally, he feels confident that bills that have passed at least one branch of the Legislature, and have “lots of advocacy,” have a shot. Those include a Senate prescription drug pricing bill, differing versions of mental health legislation that cleared both chambers, and a reshaping of the state’s marijuana laws.

Advertisement



There’s more, of course. Legislation that would ban discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hairstyle passed both chambers with fanfare, but it has sat in limbo since April, sidelined amid the springtime churn.

The Legislature is also charged with shepherding more common bills that pass virtually every legislative session, like a wide-ranging economic development package and borrowing bills.

Before the end of the session, legislative leaders also may reach deals on bills to reform the management of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, as well as legalize sports betting.

There is also a growing sense of uneasiness — “almost panic” — about a package of climate bills crossing the finish line, Eldridge said. The House passed a much narrower bill than the Senate, and Mariano said he has become a “little concerned that progress is slow” on talks and prodded Representative Jeffrey Roy, the House’s lead negotiator, to accelerate negotiations.

“I feel confident,” Roy said, “we will get there.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.