Higher costs at the pump. An overhaul to school funding. A ban on handheld phones while driving.
With Beacon Hill beginning to stir from its summer slumber, there’s potential — and pressure — for state lawmakers to deliver a bevy of long-promised proposals in the coming months that could touch wallets, classrooms, and commutes statewide.
Legislative leaders have repeatedly targeted “the fall” to unveil several major items, among them a broad transportation financing bill in the House that could rely on higher taxes and fees — such as a gas tax hike — to funnel more dollars into the state’s aging infrastructure.
That’s not all. A top House official says a proposal to rework the state’s decades-old education funding formula is primed to surface as early as this month. The Senate’s leader says she wants to push for a ban on plastic shopping bags. And lawmakers plan to hold at least one more hearing digging into the failures at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Toss in the likelihood that Governor Charlie Baker files a long-discussed bill reshaping health care delivery and financing and, suddenly, that drip-drip-drip of State House action has the potential to turn into stream of major legislation.
Of course, in a place notorious for missed deadlines, a grain of salt is a common ingredient in legislative promises. But lawmakers say they’re prepared for a busy final stretch to a year that has so far been more remarkable for what hasn’t passed — and despite, in many cases, seemingly broad support for action.
“I think the sense right now is where there’s a consensus and an appetite, we roll up our sleeves,” said state Senator Adam G. Hinds, who has been leading a working group examining the state’s tax code amid the House’s own talks about finding revenue for transportation projects.
“We are very clear that we need to be in position to engage in the fall,” he said of a transportation bill, “if that’s where things move.”
With widespread agreement that Massachusetts public transit is in “crisis,” the House bill in the works promises to be the state’s first major tax legislation in six years. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office has said it will take shape before winter, but its structure and scope remain one of the State House’s most closely watched questions.
William M. Straus, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said it’s hard to find the millions of dollars envisioned without raising the state’s 24-cent per gallon gas tax. But Senate President Karen E. Spilka has also hinted at support for tolling more roads, while state Senator Joseph A. Boncore, the Senate’s transportation chair, has proposed creating a per-mile fee for rideshares, such as through Uber and Lyft, during peak travel hours.
A progressive coalition, Raise Up Massachusetts, created a mini-uproar among business groups last month when it distributed a letter arguing that any bill needs to require businesses, not just “working people,” to chip in. DeLeo has also called on businesses to submit their own ideas to alleviate the state’s infrastructure crisis, though lawmakers and industry leaders say they haven’t seen a clear public consensus on what could draw support.
“If there’s one thing, I think, people feel there’s coalescing around, it involves the gas tax,” said James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, though he noted some business groups have hinted they “may not be for anything” despite transportation being at the top of many people’s legislative wish lists.
“I know it’s the No. 1 public policy issue on our agenda,” Rooney said.
Spilka, in a phone interview, signalled the Senate could also soon tackle its own version of a transportation funding bill. A working panel, led by Boncore, is expected to soon release a slate of recommendations “that can be implemented this fall,” she said, aligning the chamber’s timeline with the House’s own plans.
But lawmakers say they’re aware of the sensitivity around tax hikes — and who may be the hit hardest.
“You can see where the lines are,” Representative Ronald Mariano, the House’s majority leader, said of the debate between advocates and businesses. “We’re going to have to walk down the middle of the fight here. No one wants to pay more taxes.”
Competing for oxygen in the building is the long-debated legislation designed to revamp the state’s antiquated education funding formula. Initially forecasted for June, then called possible for July, a potential consensus between the two chambers has now slipped into autumn.
Representative Alice H. Peisch, the House chair of the education committee, has long been resistent to put any timeline on a bill’s release, at one point setting expectations for a bill “this session.” But she offered hope Friday that it could be ready by late September or early October after she and Jason M. Lewis, her Senate counterpart, spent months tinkering with the complicated system that decides how much in state funds each district receives.
“I’m actually very optimistic,” Peisch said of the bill’s prospects. “We were never at a stalemate.”
The Legislature has other loose ends to tie. Legislative leaders are likely to override Baker’s veto of a bill last month that would allow unions to charge non-union public employees for representing them in labor disputes. The Baker administration has also asked lawmakers to push through a request for a $50 million infusion into the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Spilka said she’s also keen on passing a bill banning plastic shopping bags, drawing inspiration from a visit last month to the Vancouver Aquarium, of all places, where she was “outraged” by a display documenting the impact discarded plastic has had on the ocean and marine life.
Potential legislation on a ban has been slowed after its most ardent supporters complained a reworked version represented “a slap in the face.” Spilka said she wants to huddle with committee leaders handling the bill to find “something that’s fair and reasonable.”
“I want to pass it,” she said of a ban.
But, in perhaps a cautionary Beacon Hill tale, intent doesn’t always guarantee swift results. Still simmering in a conference committee is a plan to require hands-free driving on roads in Massachusetts, the last state in New England without such a measure.
The House and Senate agreed on the bill’s underpinnings, but they’ve differed on how and when to collect demographic data on those stopped by police. Boncore and Straus had what they called an agreement in principle at the end of July. But Senate members ultimately never signed on, and the bill’s immediate prospects are unclear, rankling safe driving advocates and House leaders not eager to return to the bargaining table.
“At some point after you finish negotiating,” said Straus, the House’s point person, “I don’t see a reason to go back.”