HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO said Wednesday evening that he asked House members of the committee negotiating marijuana legislation to pull out of talks with the Senate until an agreement is reached on the fiscal 2018 budget.
DeLeo released a statement at 6:16 p.m., shortly after the State House News Service reported that the pot and budget deliberations may have become intertwined, with lawmakers using chits in one negotiation to influence deals on the other. “The budget is all about marijuana right now,” one legislative source said.
DeLeo’s statement appeared to admonish the Senate for linking action on the budget to action on marijuana. “The budget and marijuana negotiations were never linked by the House, nor should they be,” DeLeo said. “Tying unrelated negotiations together for political leverage does a disservice to the residents of the Commonwealth. To remove any distractions, and because of the number of critical needs that hinge on our budget – particularly programs that care for the neediest among us – I have asked that the House members of the marijuana conference committee suspend negotiations until the budget is complete.”
Senate President Stan Rosenberg dismissed any notion that the Senate was to blame, pointing the fingers at “mischief makers” and insisting negotiations could continue on both fronts.
“The mischief makers are once again at work,” Rosenberg said in a statement. “The Senate has not and will not link the budget and marijuana negotiations. Period. The Senate is fully committed to continuing negotiations on both the budget and marijuana legislation simultaneously.”
The House’s surprise move came as negotiations on the budget and pot bills, which were originally supposed to wrap up late last week, dragged on for another day. DeLeo’s statement also came as it became increasingly clear that a new dynamic had emerged in the pot conference committee: It is the Senate – not the House or the governor – that holds the upper hand in the talks.
While the House passed a measure that essentially repeals and replaces the voter-approved ballot question from last November, the Senate’s substitute measure is much closer to what the referendum law, which is legally in effect, laid out. If the conference committee is unable to reach an agreement, the referendum law will be the only one on the books. That gives leverage to the Senate in the negotiations.
“We are not starting from scratch,” Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, has said on several occasions. “We are starting from a law that was passed by the voters. It is law. It was passed in a high-turnout election.”
The Legislature gave itself six months to come up with fixes to a referendum passed 54-45 by voters in November, with the House insisting there needed to be changes in the tax rate, local control, and governance. Senators by and large indicated they would be more inclined to follow the will of the voters, making some tweaks to the law but not overhauling it completely.
The different legislative approaches have been in evidence as the marijuana legislation made its way to the conference committee, and the drawn-out conference negotiations suggest those differing approaches are continuing to play a role. Insiders say the Senate typically blinks during these types of negotiations because getting part of what the chamber wants is better than getting nothing at all. This time around, however, the Senate may be less willing to bargain because the alternative – the voter-approved law – is pretty close to the chamber’s liking. Some senators are openly saying they would be happy with the voter-approved law.
“I feel strongly that if we can’t get a marijuana bill through the Legislature that hews closely to Question 4, I think the Senate should strongly consider just letting the current law proceed,” said Sen. James Eldridge, a member of the joint marijuana committee. He said both the referendum and the Senate bill give the treasurer authority to implement the law. “What the treasurer needs to do is begin the implementation,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Treasurer Deborah Goldberg said the office is not contemplating any action on marijuana until the Legislature passes a bill even though, by law, she is supposed to be making the appointments and setting regulations.
Under the voter-approved law, the state treasurer has unilateral oversight for regulation and implementation and could, theoretically, begin making appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission. Both the House and Senate bills dilute the treasurer’s power over the commission by expanding the commission to five members from the referendum’s three. The bills also give one appointment each to the treasurer, governor, and attorney general and mandate that the other two posts be filled by a vote of the three constitutional officers.
The passage of the marijuana legislation through the Legislature helps illustrate the viewpoints of the House and Senate. Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chair of the marijuana committee, used his chamber’s superior numbers on the panel to report out a bill that had the backing of none of the senators.
The House bill more than doubled the referendum’s tax rate of up to 12 percent and eliminated the need for voters in a community to approve any proposal to opt out of allowing retail sales. Instead, the House bill let governing bodies such as boards of selectmen and city councils make the decision. The House bill also called for a task force to study expunging records of those convicted of marijuana-only offenses. despite a push by the Black and Latino Caucus to include language quashing those records in the measure.
The Senate, meanwhile, passed legislation offering greater fealty to what voters approved, including the retention of the same, lower tax rate and the a town-wide vote to opt out of retail sales. The Senate bill also called for expungement of marijuana criminal records and allowing those convicted of pot crimes to work in the soon-to-be booming industry.
Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, said the House and Senate agreed on 80 percent of what was in the marijuana legislation and suggested the House would be willing to meet the Senate somewhere in the middle on the tax rate. Jehlen, Cusack’s Senate counterpart, has indicated she is less willing to negotiate.
State Rep. Byron Rushing of Boston said part of the disconnect between the House and Senate lies with the ideological makeup of the House, where more members are opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.
“You have a lot of members who didn’t support the question,” said Rushing, a member of House leadership and a supporter of legalizing the recreational sale of pot. “There’s a lot of disagreement about if it’s dangerous or not. If the people pass something and say legalize this, but I believe it’s dangerous, what do I do? That’s part of the dynamic.”
Bruce Mohl contributed to this report.