THE HOUSE’S TOP POT negotiator said on Thursday he’s not aware of anyone from either the Senate or House who has tried to link the negotiations over the budget and marijuana bills.
“We’re the last people that would want to tie this together,” said Rep. Ronald Mariano of Quincy, the House majority leader. “We have a bill that’s significantly different from the law [passed by voters] and we want to get something done. The House has taken the position that there are a lot of flaws in the ballot question.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday evening issued a statement saying he was asking the House members of the marijuana conference committee to stop meeting with their Senate counterparts until a deal is worked out on the budget. He said the House didn’t link the marijuana and budget negotiations, implying that the Senate had used the two disparate pieces of legislation as negotiating chits. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg flatly denied members of his branch had linked the budget and pot negotiations.
Mariano said none of the Senate negotiators on the marijuana committee raised the budget as an issue. He said his only knowledge of possible connections between the two issues was DeLeo calling him to say he received questions from reporters about a connection.
“He was pretty adamant he wanted to suspend this,” said Mariano. “He was very troubled by the linkage, by being asked [by reporters] and answering questions about it.”
Seth Gitell, a spokesman for DeLeo, acknowledged the speaker’s statement about suspending the negotiations came “in response to press inquiries.” Gitell did not say whether DeLeo had knowledge of anyone in the Senate linking the fate of the bills.
Senators were tight-lipped, with most not returning calls or declining to publicly comment. One Senate source said flatly there was no one from the chamber that looked to deal between the two issues and said the decision to suspend negotiations appeared to be a “temper tantrum” by House officials accustomed to getting their way.
Rosenberg urged the House to rejoin the conversation, insisting there was no connection between the two issues and that work could continue on both at the same time.
“In the Senate we can walk and chew gum at the same time and we would invite the House to join us,” Rosenberg told reporters Thursday afternoon, according to State House News Service.
Mariano said he hopes to resume talks quickly, acknowledging that the longer it takes, the more likely the Senate gets what it wants and the House loses out.
“We are coming at this from diametrically opposed positions so we expected some long, tough negotiations,” Mariano said. “I suppose [not reaching a deal], that’s advantageous to their positions.”
Despite the machinations, there is a legal marijuana law on the books because voters approved the ballot question last fall. The House bill essentially rewrites the referendum, raising the tax rate from a maximum of 12 percent to a maximum of 28 percent. The Senate measure makes some minor tweaks but essentially retains most of the language.
If no compromise can be reached, the voter-approved law will remain the ruling statute, giving the Senate the upper hand in negotiations because that language is more preferable to that chamber than the House version. It’s a position House members are unaccustomed to because of the majority status they enjoy on joint legislative committees.
“They’re in the dynamic where we have the leverage,” said the Senate source.
The House bill would jack the tax rate up to 28 percent, from the referendum’s maximum 12 percent, and change the opt-out provision by the initiative that mandates a community-wide vote and instead allow elected officials in cities and towns to make the decision.
Gov. Charlie Baker, in a brief meeting in his office with reporters, declined to weigh in on the stalemate, saying he wanted both a budget and a marijuana bill on his desk as soon as possible.
“I’m not one to tell the Legislature how to do their job,” he said. “I just want some progress on executing on the job.”
But later on his regular appearance on Boston Public Radio on WGBH (89.7-FM), he said he supported the House’s version on both raising taxes and who controls the decision at the local level.
“Local elected officials are on the hook to the people in their community, we all know that,” said Baker, a former selectman in Swampscott. “What I do know is that if you regulate this like alcohol, that decision gets made by the local elected body. They’re the ones who decide where the licenses go and where they get put.”
Mariano, who declined to offer details about the pot bill negotiations, acknowledged that taxes and local control are two big sticking points. But he said there are many other issues and it is more nuanced than that. He said, for instance, there are multiple types of marijuana facilities under the law, such as retail stores, cultivation facilities, manufacturing plants, and distribution sites. He said the House wants communities to be able to pick and choose if they want one type of facility but not another.
“There are major, major sticking points,” he said, including regulatory governance.
Under the current referendum law, the state treasurer, who regulates alcohol, would have oversight over marijuana and appointing authority over the three-member Cannabis Control Commission. Both the House and Senate bills would expand the commission to five members and give the treasurer just one appointment – the chairman – with the governor and attorney general each getting one appointment post and the other two filled by a vote between the three constitutional officers.
But, with deadlines fast approaching about appointments and regulations, if no deal is reached, then state Treasurer Deb Goldberg would be forced to exercise her authority under the ballot question. In order to do that, though, she would need funds, according to a spokeswoman.
Last year, the Legislature approved $300,000 for initial start-up costs, which was held by Baker pending changes to the governance structure. That money sits in a reserve trust but would have to be reauthorized by the Legislature. In the fiscal year 2018 budget proposals, the Senate measure sets aside $2 million for implementation while the House and Baker’s versions of the spending document each propose $4 million. Goldberg had asked for $10 million for start-up costs.
“As we await a resolution from the conference committee, we continue to have great concerns about the Commonwealth’s ability to meet currently prescribed deadlines,” Chandra Allard, a spokeswoman for Goldberg, said in an emailed statement. “Additionally, as we have emphasized in the past, any implementation of the law would require immediate allocation of funding. Without it, our office has done everything we can.”