How high on marijuana is too high to drive? Should the state tax Airbnb rentals? Can a new law slow the rise of health care costs? These are some of the questions the Massachusetts Legislature is likely to address in the two-year session that begins Wednesday. Here’s a quick primer on some of what’s expected to be on the docket.
MARIJUANA: Voters legalized marijuana for recreational use in November through a ballot initiative, but legislative leaders believe the law has a lot of holes. So far, they’ve delayed the likely opening date for recreational marijuana stores in Massachusetts by half a year, from January to July 2018. Among other areas they expect to debate: restrictions on pot-infused edibles like candy and cookies; a legal standard for driving under the influence (there’s currently no marijuana impairment standard in the law comparable to the 0.08 or greater blood alcohol concentration cut-off for alcohol); and efforts to give cities and towns more control over local pot shops.
THE MINIMUM WAGE: The state’s minimum wage ticked up to $11 per hour on Jan. 1, the final incremental boost enshrined in law in 2014. But advocates are already agitating for another boost to $15. And they have raised the specter of a ballot question to force lawmakers to act. “We have an incredibly affluent state, yet we have one of the highest levels of inequality in the country,” said Harris Gruman, a union leader and co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition that pressed for the most recent wage hike. “If we want an economy that works for everybody, we can afford wages that keep up with the cost of living.” Business groups, however, are already warning that a higher wage floor would mean shops could hire fewer people.
AIRBNB TAX: Legislation to tax and regulate Airbnb Inc. and similar online home-rental services never made it into law last year. But legislative leaders have indicated such an effort will be revived this year. Airbnb supports limited regulation and likes the idea of the state taxing its users — it has said state and local governments could have received at least $15 million over the past year or so. The hotel industry is also keen to see the new home-rental market taxed like hotel rooms, but wants stiffer regulations.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: An outside non-profit is poised to deliver recommendations on how lawmakers can reform specific aspects of the state’s criminal justice system. But, regardless of what the organization gives to lawmakers, it’s likely that the Legislature will interpret reform in a broader way. It could include adjustments to state laws on bail, mandatory minimum sentences, solitary confinement, prison programming, parole eligibility, and community supervision practices.
HEALTH CARE COSTS: Massachusetts has some of the best hospitals and doctors in the world. It also has some of America’s highest medical costs, which eat up more and more resources every year. Health spending in Massachusetts increased 4.1 percent in 2015 and 4.2 percent in 2014, surpassing a state goal of keeping spending increases to 3.6 percent a year, in line with projected economic growth. Although the Legislature already passed a law to try to curb the steep rise of the cost of health care, lawmakers say they may take another crack at reining in those costs, which keep going up and up at what many experts see as an unsustainable pace.
STATE BUDGET: Despite a moderately strong economy and historically low unemployment, the state has careened from one budget gap to another, with three rounds of unilateral emergency cuts by Governor Charlie Baker since he took office in 2015. Legislators are likely to face tough choices about what programs to fund in the months ahead. The new fiscal year, which begins in July will “highlight the continued mismatch between spending and revenues,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. She said the gap between projected revenue and spending just enough to maintain current services could approach $1 billion.
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Curt Woodward and Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Globe staff contributed to this report.