There is no shortage of vexing problems facing Massachusetts government these days: The MBTA is in constant crisis. Housing is increasingly unaffordable in Boston and beyond. And the state is being sued for failing to provide minority children with a decent education.
But don’t look to the Legislature for any kind of immediate action. Its leaders are not planning to tackle most of these key policy debates until later in the year — at the earliest — and they’ve also just blown through their July 1 deadline to finish their most fundamental task: crafting a budget.
For the ninth year in a row, the Legislature had to pass a stopgap spending measure to keep state government running. And it’s not as if budget writers have to slog through tough debates about where to cut spending: Tax revenues are pouring in far in excess of estimates.
Other states manage to do more — in some cases, much more. Forty-two states have enacted budgets for fiscal 2020 already, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In fact, Massachusetts is one of just two states with a fiscal year starting July 1 where the Legislature has not passed an annual spending plan yet. (The other is Ohio.)
Beacon Hill leadership says behind-the-scenes work is happening on several fronts, including an overhaul of the state’s troubled education funding formula and proposals to pump more money into the beleaguered public transportation system. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo recently described the latter as a “crisis” after Governor Charlie Baker announced his request for $50 million in additional revenue to speed up fixes to the MBTA.
“So far this session, the House has passed major pieces of legislation to fund state services, keep our roads safe, raise revenue, invest in our roads and bridges, support farmers, put in place consumer protections and create safeguards for workers, among other items,” DeLeo said in a statement.
“The Senate has been working diligently since January, and will continue its collaborative process to craft bold, actionable solutions to the challenges facing the Commonwealth,” said state Senate President Karen Spilka.
In several cases, bills that have passed one chamber are awaiting further action elsewhere on Beacon Hill. The Legislature has sent only a handful of meaningful measures to Baker’s desk so far this year, according to a Globe review.
He’s taken action on 30 bills, but only two of these qualify as meaty policy matters — a ban on so-called gay conversion therapy for minors, and the repeal of a policy precluding families receiving welfare benefits from getting additional assistance when another child is born. Lawmakers passed the latter over Baker’s veto.
Lawmakers and other Beacon Hill defenders argue bills sent to Baker’s desk are not the only yardstick by which to gauge the Legislature’s productivity. The start of the two-year legislative session is typically dominated by hearings, of which more than 100 have happened to date.
For comparison, in their six-month legislative session that ended earlier this month, New York legislators not only completed a $175.5 billion budget, they hammered out deals on more than a dozen consequential policy issues. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, approved stronger rental laws and protections for undocumented immigrants, moved to eliminate almost all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and overhauled the state’s voting laws and the Legislature’s own ethics rules, among other measures.
“A sense of jealousy and a sense of serious anger,” is how former state representative Jay R. Kaufman said he felt reading a recent New York Times editorial praising all the New York Assembly accomplished this year. “A comparable editorial cannot be written about the Massachusetts Legislature,” said Kaufman, who left Beacon Hill after 24 years to start a nonprofit focused on leadership training for the public sector.
Some items are nearing the finish line on Beacon Hill. Both chambers have passed legislation this year banning the use of mobile devices while driving. The House and Senate also each passed bills to bolster organized labor. In both cases, lawmakers still must work out differences in conference committee.
They also recently approved a constitutional amendment to raise income taxes on millionaires — the first procedural step to putting the proposal on the ballot, something that would happen, at the earliest, in 2022.
In Beacon Hill’s biennial rhythm, the season for hard-nosed negotiation and horse trading on the big, complicated matters typically comes in the second year — with the hard deadline at the session’s end.
At the close of the previous two-year session, lawmakers struck a so-called grand bargain that combined a $15 minimum wage and a paid family and medical leave program with a permanent sales tax holiday and overtime changes. (Legislative action only came, though, after progressive activists and business interests had secured separate ballot measures on their respective priorities.)
Lawmakers and others point to the complexity of the state’s almost $43 billion budget and stress the importance of getting it done right, not fast — especially since the stopgap spending measure means there’s no practical consequences to a delay of a few weeks’ time.
On Monday, Baker told reporters he is unbothered by the Legislature’s repeated budget tardiness. Passing a temporary budget to let lawmakers have more time “usually ends up producing a better product then simply getting there by June 30,” he said.
And several outside advocates said they’re optimistic Beacon Hill will prove able to finish legislation on key policy fronts during the session, which ends next year.
“I actually give high marks to the Legislature this session because there’s been a clear acknowledgment of the need to act decisively on our transportation crisis, and it is a crisis,” said former state transportation secretary James Aloisi. While they may not have the details worked out, both DeLeo and Spilka have indicated “action is not just warranted but necessary. That alone gives me a lot of hope that the Legislature intends to step up and do something significant” this session, he said.
DeLeo has said the House plans to take up a tax package this fall to help fund transportation. House and Senate education chairs are meeting regularly to hash out a consensus on revamping the state’s antiquated education funding formula, which they hope to unveil before lawmakers scatter for August vacations.
The timeline for other high-profile initiatives remains murky — including legislation pushed by Baker that would make it easier for cities and towns to change zoning to allow new housing. Another Patriots season is set to start without Massachusetts allowing legal wagers, a year after the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to have sports betting — while a dozen other states, including Rhode Island, have charged ahead.
Even mundane matters can move at a sluggish pace. Lawmakers did not finish a $200 million borrowing bill for municipal road repairs until June, taking five weeks longer to pass the annual measure than they did last year, according to State House News Service, even though the borrowing level has remained essentially unchanged since 2012.
“It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel. . . . This is the same thing over and over again,” said Franklin’s director of public works, Robert Cantoreggi.
Passing the annual road repair bill after March makes it harder for many cities and towns to plan their construction projects and can drive up costs, because so many municipalities are trying to hire a limited pool of contractors in a compressed amount of time, he said. The House transportation committee chairman, William Straus, said he disagrees that the timing of the bill had a negative impact on any cities and towns.
But Cantoreggi said the process for authorizing these funds “could be a lot more efficient, but that’s Beacon Hill.”