Last week, the House passed a $36.32 billion state budget, a comprehensive financial package that funds the state’s cities and towns as well as other essential needs, maintains a strong rainy day fund and targets key priorities, such as substance abuse, mental health and reforms of the Department of Children & Families.
The annual budget process in Massachusetts represents the culmination of financial analysis and a review of the challenges and opportunities facing the Commonwealth, capped off by a week of debate and discussion of matters across state government. In recent years, the House budgets have contributed to an increase in the state’s bond rating to AA+, the highest in Massachusetts’ history, and addressed complex matters such as oversight of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, reform of our municipal health system and a proactive funding plan for our community colleges and state universities.
The value of this legislation cannot be overstated. The passage of municipal health reform, for example, took years. Finding the right legislative mix to create meaningful change required different iterations of legislation over a period of time but was well worth it. When ultimately passed, it permitted cities and towns to join the state’s health insurance system, the Group Insurance Commission, or to devise their own more affordable group plans. Ultimately city leaders, union officials, legislators and the governor all came together to support it.
To date municipal health care reform has saved the state more than $200 million a year. If all municipalities adopt the legislation by 2015 we are projected to save more than $255 million. Said Geoff Beckwith, the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association: “This was the most important reform law to benefit cities and towns in the past 30 years.”
For at least a half-decade, the House, Senate and Governor have come to agreement on budget matters on-time. Where other states have seen great delays and, in some cases, even litigation, Massachusetts’ budget process has been efficient and productive. Long-gone are the protracted battles and drawn-out negotiations that characterized previous eras. For that reason, perhaps, the magnitude of this annual ritual has been somewhat lost in the shuffle.
While it might be popular in some quarters to deride the volume of legislation taken up by the state legislature, the reductive analysis fails to reflect the true picture of Massachusetts’ standing with respect to other states in drafting and passing serious, ground-breaking pieces of law. Rating the efficacy of any legislature based on the quantity of laws it passes rather than the quality of the policy it sets is both simplistic and not valuable to citizens to understanding their government.
The budget is the most obvious example of complicated but crucial legislation passed on Beacon Hill each year. But it is by no means the only one. Consider the fact that Massachusetts passed its own universal health care law in 2006.
Shortly thereafter experts declared the law a national model. “Massachusetts shows that it’s possible to make real progress on insurance coverage in a short amount of time,” wrote Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic. “There is only one real-life model in this country for the kind of sweeping change being considered in Washington, and that is in Massachusetts,” reported Kevin Sack of The New York Times.
While national legislators were still arguing over the federal version of the bill, in 2012, Massachusetts passed the first-ever health care cost containment law in the country, which is already reaping dividends.
Even as problems have arisen in implementing the transition process between the state and the federal systems, our state enjoys one of the highest percentages of insurance coverage in the country, if not the world.
The House has also led the nation in passing legislation that protects civil rights and enhances equality. For example, in 2011, we passed the Transgender Equal Rights Law, which, according to Mass Equality, helps “ensure that every LGBTQ person in Massachusetts is equal, safe and free, from cradle to grave.” Paired with the Bullying Law in 2010 and its counterpart bill this year, this legislation positions Massachusetts as the national leader in fostering a just society where all residents are equally protected under law.
Economic development has been a constant focus of the House since I became Speaker. Notably, in 2012, we passed an Economic Development Law that placed a focus on the innovation economy. This included a MassTech Intern Partnership that allows students and young innovators to get a head start on their future by matching stipends for interns at technology and innovation start-ups. These early connections will make for a strong innovation economy in the long term.
The 2012 law also created a $50 million Innovation Investment Fund which provides matching grants to R&D projects sponsored by the state’s world-class universities and research institutions to maintain our competitive edge and stimulate economic development. That law also built on the commitment to small businesses and start-ups by authorizing the Pension Reserves Investment Management Board (PRIM) to invest at least $100M in institutions that make capital available to small businesses and early-stage companies. We are at work on a second economic development bill for this year.
A gun safety bill that would be among the strongest in the nation and final passage of a sweeping domestic violence bill are on the agenda for the final months of the legislative session.
It is possible that individuals disagree in part or whole with the legislation the Massachusetts House has been instrumental in enacting. But the depth and breadth of the groundbreaking laws we have worked on is without question. For most of our history Massachusetts has been a national leader, and the work we are currently doing upholds this tradition. Our state is poised for greatness in the years to come.
Robert A. DeLeo represents the 19th Suffolk District and has been the Speaker of the Massachusetts House since 2009.