After pay raise, state lawmakers off to slow start
Nearly two months after approving their own substantial salary boost, amid claims they were underpaid and overworked, state lawmakers have sent only three minor bills to the governor’s desk.
After ratifying and then defending the $18 million pay raise, many legislators are still shuffling office spaces at the start of a two-year legislative cycle, which opened on Jan. 4. Only in recent days have legislative committees announced which bills they will consider. And in the past seven months, lawmakers have taken recorded votes on only one significant issue — the pay raises.
Even some legislators acknowledge the less-than-speedy pace.
“It does seem like it’s taken a while to get going, but I don’t know what’s to blame for it,” said state Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat. She pointed to midweek snowstorms and a later-than-usual restructuring of legislative committees as likely factors.
“The only priority legislative leaders seems to have in mind is to personally enrich themselves,” said Paul Craney, executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.
Of the three bills that have been passed, all allowed state workers to contribute unused sick leave to colleagues.
Gregory W. Sullivan, research director at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute and a former state representative and inspector general, compared the pace of progress on Beacon Hill unfavorably to Washington. “In Congress right now, they’re working on [President] Trump’s crazy Obamacare repeal or whatever they’re calling it right now,” he said. “But they’re working.”
It’s not as if legislators have nothing to do. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has said he wants to make early-childhood education a priority. Liberal lawmakers are keen to pass a significant package of criminal justice reform legislation. Governor Charlie Baker has proposed a contentious plan to penalize businesses that don’t offer health insurance. House leaders are pushing a measure to regulate and tax short-term rentals such as Airbnb.
Additionally, the introduction of the commercialized marijuana industry into the state has forced lawmakers to wrestle with a complicated matter many of them opposed. Legislative leaders are considering a variety of ways to amend the law that voters approved in November.
In mid-February, they appointed a marijuana committee co-chaired by Senator Patricia Jehlen, who has acknowledged she has little expertise on the subject. The panel is scheduled to hold its first hearing Monday, more than a month later.
Also on lawmakers’ agenda: state finances. Baker introduced a $40.5 billion state budget plan on Jan. 25, but the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee didn’t hold its first hearing on the proposal until March 9.
Last Tuesday’s snowstorm scuttled plans for a second hearing and for a House formal session to take up a $259 million supplemental budget that the governor filed back in January.
Lawmakers’ relaxed pace comes as the state has witnessed the bottom drop out of its February state revenue report. Collections came in at $117 million, or 9.1 percent, below the benchmarks that were used to formulate the state’s current operating budget. Policy makers are also nervous that the federal government could impose cuts to funding from Washington, particularly to Medicaid. Release of President Trump’s budget Thursday underscored those fears.
In a statement, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg described the Senate as “on par with or a little ahead of schedule compared to a typical term.” He pointed to 10 public hearings and a statewide listening tour as evidence of activity.
DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell said, “Bills have just been referred to committees. Chairs are hard at work on their bills, and the schedule will be filled with hearings in the coming days.”
The legislative pace, however, has been quicker in past sessions. Four years ago, as Beacon Hill embarked on the back half of then-Governor Deval Patrick’s second term, DeLeo and then-Senate President Therese Murray rolled out firm agenda pillars: regional transportation equity, comprehensive gun control measures, reforms to the state’s welfare and unemployment insurance systems.
Momentum on gun control, coming shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting that claimed 26 lives, was palpable during the first few months of the 2013-14 session, leading to crowded State House meetings and, eventually, a sweeping new law. Policy makers were also facing a mid-January deadline for casino application deadlines.
Two years ago, at the start of the previous legislative session, lawmaking was delayed because House and Senate leadership disagreed over rules and the committee structure. Lawmakers were beginning to grapple with the ultimately doomed effort to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston — and the state was dealing with historic snowfall and a deeply dysfunctional transit system.
Still, by early February that year lawmakers had dealt with a $768 million midyear budget fix filed by Baker, who was then in the opening months of his administration, and had taken up a separate, $350 million spending plan he had proposed.
No such energy exists at the State House this year, even amid ongoing budget woes caused in part by the growth in health care costs.
“The Legislature should not be spinning its wheels at this point in the legislative session while the MassHealth budget crisis continues unabated,” Sullivan said. “Ultimately, the Legislature itself has to fix the problem of employees turning down employer health plans and going on Medicaid, and of medium-sized businesses dropping health insurance, putting people on MassHealth.”
Beacon Hill political veterans say part of the reason for a slower process is rooted in the increasing powers that House speakers and Senate presidents have used to dominate the flow of bills. Up until about two decades ago, each legislative committee would generally set its own agenda. Today, particularly in the House, the agenda is set by the leadership, bottling up the process.
On top of everything else, the volatility in Washington could also be hindering action.
“They may have been waiting for the election, then the election happened, and there’s still chaos, because who the hell knows what’s going to happen?” said Ray La Raja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Still, La Raja sees a bit of a silver lining: “If I was a state legislator, I wouldn’t want to be making decisions that might be undercut by federal policy in a few months, so it might be wise to wait that out a bit,” he said.