Baker to lawmakers: Pick up the pace, already!
Almost a year after Massachusetts legislators raised their own pay over the governor’s veto, Charlie Baker is expressing increasing impatience with the glacial pace of accomplishments on Beacon Hill.
As the Republican looks ahead to the end of the two-year legislative session in July, he ticked off a list of bills he wants to see reach his desk. The measures include updating the state’s wiretap laws, $500 million in spending for life sciences over five years, tougher penalties for so-called revenge porn, borrowing money for the maintenance of state facilities, and new taxes and regulation for Airbnb hosts who effectively run hotels out of their houses.
“There’s a whole bunch of fairly noncontroversial but important pieces of legislation that didn’t happen in the first half of the session,” the governor said. “Most of them, I believe, could have. And some of them are the kinds of the things where, when you don’t get them done, you know, nothing happens.”
Baker expressed particular dismay that a yearslong effort to tax and regulate Airbnb and similar services has not resulted in a new law.
“I think it’s important the Legislature deal with the fact that there are a lot of people playing in the Airbnb space who, for all intents and purposes, might as well be running hotels,” he said in an interview.
“And, if you’re running a hotel, you should play by a lot of the same rules a hotel plays by or a bed and breakfast plays by. You either believe in level playing field competition or you don’t. I do.”
Still, the governor did say he’ll withhold final judgment until the end of the session, and he offered tempered praise for some achievements this year.
Legislators, some of whom got raises of tens of thousands of dollars this year, meanwhile trumpeted a modest list of accomplishments — even as the scent of scandal hangs over the State House.
They put new protections for pregnant workers into law and gave educators more flexibility in teaching English-language learners.
They mandated many Massachusetts women receive free access to contraceptives — an effort to maintain a version of the status quo in response to President Trump’s efforts to roll back coverage.
They explicitly banned bump stocks, devices that can be attached to a semiautomatic firearm to increase its firing speed — but some lawyers believe that using the devices was already banned under existing Massachusetts law.
And House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he considers the passage of the budget as being among “major House achievements this year,” according to his spokesman, Seth Gitell. That’s a low bar: Appropriating taxpayer money is a constitutional obligation.
Both the House and Senate this fall passed broad legislation aimed at overhauling the state’s criminal justice system, but the conference committee charged with reconciling the two substantially different versions of the bills had not even met when the Globe made several inquiries last week. (They met Monday.)
A spokesman for acting Senate President Harriette L. Chandler trumpeted several Senate-passed bills, including sweeping health care legislation that aims to control the rising costs of medical care and prescription drugs. But that bill and many other Senate priorities face an unknown future in the more conservative House.
The House and Senate’s deliberative pace doesn’t draw disapprobation from all corners, however.
“I think what is most important to me is not necessarily the speed at which bills are moving forward, but the end results,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton.
He also said he was pleased with the Legislature’s successful thwarting of a Baker proposal to shift about 140,000 nondisabled adults from Medicaid to subsidized private insurance plans.
That would have saved the state money, Baker said. But opponents said it would have forced low-income people to pay more for less-generous health coverage.
In the interview, Baker said of the proposal’s failure: “I’m disappointed by that, too.”
And although the Legislature is ostensibly full-time, both chambers’ last formal session to do the work of serious legislating this year was Nov. 15.
The next formal session? Forty-nine days later, on Jan. 3.
In recent days, many legislators have been out the State House or out of Massachusetts — and several were out of the country.
But being away from their primary workplace ended up being a turn of serendipity, as the whiff of scandal has hung heavily over the marble corridors.
Last month, former state senator Brian A. Joyce was indicted on federal charges he collected about $1 million in bribes and kickbacks that he had laundered through his law firm. Joyce pleaded not guilty.
In late November, the Globe reported that three men said Bryon Hefner, the husband of then-Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg, had groped their genitals (two said he had done so more than once) and one said that Hefner had kissed him against his will.
Hefner’s alleged victims and others have said that Hefner boasted about his pull in state politics and his influence with Rosenberg.
Though three of the episodes allegedly took place when Rosenberg was just feet away, the Globe found no evidence that he knew about the assaults.
Rosenberg subsequently resigned from his leadership post temporarily, for the duration of a Senate investigation into whether he broke the chamber’s rules. But at least four senators are gunning for the top leadership post, should it become vacant.
And last week, the Globe reported the FBI has begun looking into the allegations against Hefner. The sources were two people familiar with the inquiry. The report said the agents are interested in whether Hefner offered a quid pro quo to his alleged victims, using his relationship with Rosenberg to influence Senate business in return for sexual favors.
All of the allegations have led to questions about whether next year will be more productive.
State House insiders say the slow pace is pretty standard for Beacon Hill, which tends to move only under the duress of deadlines — more common in the second year of the two-year session. But they warn the tumult in the Senate could thwart progress.
“While I think there’s a perception of a slower pace, I don’t think it’s abnormal,” said one former state senator, who was unwilling to speak for the record because he lobbies the Legislature and is not keen to damage his relationships. “But the big question is whether the leadership challenges in the Senate — who will actually be in charge? — are going to slow bills from moving forward.”