THE TRADITIONAL END-OF-SESSION legislative crush got a little less intense this year as both branches agreed to extendformal sessions past July 31 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The extended session will let the Legislature craft a fiscal 2021 budget once more information is known about the economy and federal stimulus money, and continue to address COVID-19-related legislation. It will also let lawmakers finish up some of the work that got delayed by what was essentially a four-month pause in non-COVID-related action.
Because lawmakers appear hesitant to address new, non-COVID issues that were not debated before July 31, there has still been a flurry of legislating this past week, with formal sessions held every day, often continuing late into the evening.
Here are some of the key topics that are still pending.
Prompted by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protests against racism and policy brutality broke out across the country, including in Massachusetts.
Both the House and the Senate responded by passing major police reform bills.
Gov. Charlie Baker had proposed creating a centralized system that would standardize police training and license police officers. Officers could be decertified for misconduct.
The House and the Senate expanded on Baker’s bill, but there are major differences between the bodies on several key issues. Among them: whether to change qualified immunity, a legal tenet that shields police officers from civil lawsuits related to misconduct on the job; the role of the attorney general in investigating police misconduct; whether schools should be required to have school resource officers; how to limit the use of facial recognition technology; and whether to reexamine the civil service law.
The House and the Senate both passed versions of a transportation bond bill to fund myriad transportation-related projects on highways, bridges and public transit. But only the House supports raising more revenue – including increasing the gas tax – to pay for transportation projects in the current economic climate.
Without new revenues, key House leaders say they will cut the size of the Senate’s $17 billion plus bond bill. The bill remains in conference committee.
Both the House and the Senate passed different versions of an economic development bill.
This bill, a version of which is passed every session to fund job-creating projects and initiatives, traditionally becomes a Christmas tree of local earmarks, as lawmakers try to get district projects funded. This year, the bill will be particularly important with double-digit unemployment and many business sectors, like restaurants and cultural institutions, hard-hit by COVID-19-related closures.
But this year’s bill also goes much farther than funding economic development initiatives and incorporates a wide range of policy changes.
The House version would legalize sports betting. The Senate version would not.
Both bodies included a version of Baker’s Housing Choices bill, which would change local approval thresholds for certain zoning decisions from a supermajority of the governing body to a majority – despite the anger of advocates who say it does not do enough to incentivize affordable housing and protect tenants.
The Senate incorporates a “bill of rights” for student loan borrowers, authorizes more offshore wind development, lets farmer brewers and distillers sell alcoholic drinks at farmers’ markets, lets hemp be grown on agricultural preservation land, and reduces regulations on hair braiders.
The House bill would require a report on the status of the Region C casino, create a statewide Office of Rural Policy, diversify the investments of the state pension fund and create a commission to examine the local newspaper industry.
This bill could also provide a vehicle to approve a deal reached between craft brewers and beer distributors to resolve a years-long dispute over when a brewer can sever ties with their distributor.
The Legislature this week passed a three-month interim budget, to fund state operations through October 31. As of Friday afternoon, it was awaiting Baker’s signature.
Lawmakers will have to return this fall to pass a full-year budget for fiscal 2021. Budget-writers said it would have been too difficult to craft a full-year budget now without knowing the strength of any economic recovery, the trajectory of the COVID-19 virus and whether more federal stimulus funds will be forthcoming.
The House released and debated a bill this week that would create a roadmap for reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The bill includes sections dealing with solar power subsidies, grid modernization, clean energy jobs, and municipal light plants.
The House version of the bill is less detailed than a version that previously passed the Senate, which requires the administration to meet statewide emission targets every five years and also requires the setting of emission reduction targets for individual sectors, like transportation.
The House and Senate have both taken up bills that would address insurance coverage for telehealth, which has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate would require insurers to continue paying for telehealth at the same rate as for in-person visits for two years, while the House would narrow pay parity to certain specialties, while requiring permanent pay parity for behavioral health.
The bills address other issues, like helping financially struggling community hospitals, prohibiting out-of-network surprise billing and expanding the scope of practice of various medical professionals.
But there are significant disagreements between the House and Senate on these issues, and the two committee chairs have not been getting along. Last legislative session, a conference committee failed to reach an agreement on a major health care reform bill, and it remains to be seen if they can do so this year.
Separately, the Senate passed a bill limiting the use of step therapy, a practice by which an insurer makes a patient try a less costly drug before a more expensive one. A similar amendment was not included in the House’s health care bill.
The House and Senate sent Baker a bill that would criminalize female genital mutilation. The practice, which can cause serious harm to girls, involves cutting part of a girl’s genitalia for nonmedical reasons. It is practiced in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It used to be illegal in the US, but the law was overturned. It is banned in 38 states.
Both the House and the Senate passed versions of a bill that would create a commission to study racial disparities in maternal health. Statistically, Black and Latina women are more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications than white women.
One bill passed by the Senate but not the House would create a licensing system for midwives. This would ensure that midwives who attend out-of-hospital births have standardized training and certification.
Another Senate bill would create a commission to study barriers to substance use treatment for pregnant or postpartum women.
The House passed a bill aimed at bringing more transparency to the state’s struggling foster care system, primarily by enhancing reporting requirements at the Department of Children and Families and creating a bill of rights for foster parents.
The Senate released its own version Friday in an attempt to quickly move it into conference committee. The Senate bill similarly contains new DCF reporting requirements and a foster parents’ bill of rights, but it also requires DCF to establish three-year targets for safety and permanence outcomes, makes it easier for foster children to get medical and behavioral health treatment quickly, and requires state officials to take steps to ensure that no children get stuck in the emergency room waiting for a psychiatric treatment bed to open up.
Two high-profile bills that have been the subject of much progressive activism this year did not make it through the House or the Senate.
Lawmakers chose not to act on a bill that would give drivers’ licenses to immigrants without legal status.
Lawmakers also did not act on the ROE Act, a controversial bill that would expand access to abortion by eliminating a requirement that a minor get parental consent and allowing access to abortion after 24 weeks in case of a fatal birth defect.