With little debate and almost no fanfare, Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday pushed a nearly $3.8 billion spending bill through a lightly attended informal session, landing it on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
The compromise bill is a pared-down version of a massive economic development package that lawmakers failed to agree upon as their formal session came to an end on Aug. 1. The package is backed by a mix of federal stimulus funds and the remainder of a massive, $5 billion budget surplus from the last fiscal year.
The legislation Baker received puts money toward hospitals, housing initiatives, clean energy initiatives, and an array of smaller earmarks. But it omits permanent tax relief measures that lawmakers previously had plugged as an answer for residents being squeezed by inflation.
Legislative leaders cited economic “uncertainty” in cutting the tax relief measures, as well as the fact that state officials are already sending nearly $3 billion in refunds to taxpayers after the windfall of tax collections triggered a 1986 tax-cap law. The lack of tax relief in the bill drew the ire of Senate Republicans on Thursday, though even in an informal session — where a single dissenting vote can kill legislation — no one impeded the bill’s passage.
“We’ve shaken it upside down, we’ve even read it backward,” Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the chamber’s minority leader and a Gloucester Republican, said of the bill. “Somehow, in this moment when we are close to spending $4 billion . . . we are going to let the opportunity escape us to provide permanent tax relief.”
Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief and a Westport Democrat, retorted: “It’s not a Beatles album, where you get special messages if you spin the album backwards.”
There were other notable exclusions. A provision that would have resurrected the option for communities to reinstate happy-hour drink specials, long banned in Massachusetts, didn’t make the cut.
The proposal, which was initially amended to the Senate’s $4.57 billion economic development bill, would have allowed any city or town to vote to allow sale of discounted alcoholic beverages at bars and restaurants during specific hours, so long as the discount was publicly announced at least three days in advance and didn’t run past 10 p.m. Local governments would have regulated how the measure is implemented.
Baker, who leaves office in January, opposed it.
“The party isn’t over, we are going to keep pushing to bring this up again in the next session,” said Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.
Lawmakers also did not include House-passed language that would have exempted a 43-acre industrial property straddling the Everett-Boston line from a slew of environmental requirements so it could be developed as a “sports, recreation or events center.”
The amendment, passed in July without debate, was designed to aid New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s pursuit of a soccer stadium after more than a decade of searching for a new home for the Revolution, the Globe has reported. But it drew immediate resistance from environmentalists.
Among other casualties: A measure that would have allowed state employees to get health insurance within 30 days of their start date (the current wait is 60 days); a proposal to create a $5 million annual live theater tax credit; and a provision that would have authorized the Massachusetts Lottery to sell products online.
The 203-page bill features a variety of spending initiatives:
— $350 million toward “fiscally strained” hospitals, $195 million for nursing homes, and $200 million for COVID-19 response;
— $17.5 million for “reproductive and family planning services”;
— $112 million for helping the MBTA implement safety directives from the Federal Transportation Administration;
— $57 million toward the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, to help offset expected rising energy costs this winter;
— $100 million to help “promote and accelerate” the use of electric vehicles.
Steve Walsh, chief executive of Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said the organization was pleased with the money dedicated to provider funding.
“This support is a critical step toward recovery for hospitals and health systems after nearly three years of steep losses and ahead of what will be their most difficult stretch yet,” he wrote in a statement Wednesday, after details of the bill were released.
Mass Audubon, which had lobbied for investments in land stewardship like dam removals, salt marsh restoration, and funding for new parks, was also pleased. Sam Anderson, who advocated for the group, said he was “surprised” to see so much in the final bill, which included $175 million in total funding for land protection and climate-related projects.
“The circumstances were sort of incredible. The restraints on the bill were real, and they managed to fit a lot of priorities in there,” he said, calling the funding “a best-case scenario.”
Baker on Thursday rapped lawmakers for the tax relief omission, writing in an e-mail to supporters that legislative leaders had “committed to cutting taxes” but were now “reneging on that promise.” Baker included the criticism in a message urging people to vote against a ballot question that would raise taxes on some of the state’s wealthiest residents.
“It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback on these things,” House budget chief Aaron Michlewitz told the Globe on Thursday. Triggering the 1986 tax-cap law “certainly changed the dialogue, in terms of what we can and can’t afford. . . . It could have turned out differently, possibly, but it’s hard to say exactly what could have, should have happened.”