The work of the 2019 Legislative session truly begins Monday afternoon when Democratic leaders from the House and the Senate meet with Gov. Charlie Baker to discuss the agenda for the coming months. There's an uncustomary sense of agreement between the branches about what that agenda should be. However, there's little indication Beacon Hill's Big Three will find easy compromise on just how to tackle the big-ticket items of education funding and health care costs.
You could be forgiven if that particular policy menu sounds familiar, as it's identical to the list of items lawmakers tried to pass laws on at the end of last year's session.
But don't expect Democrats to lunge headfirst into floor debates over rewriting how, and how much, funding goes to local school districts. Holding your breath while the Legislature comes up with ways to slow the advance of health care from strangling state finances is also not advisable. That's because the all-important budget comes first on Beacon Hill's calendar.
The budget is monumentally important every year, but this year, the various spending documents offered by the House, Senate and Baker's administration could shed light on what policy leaders want to do in the long term for healthier schools and cost-conscience medical customers.
Baker has promised action on school funding, an issue coming to a head this year as more districts, parents and labor groups grow frustrated with Beacon Hill's inability to agree on a new funding formula.
"When it comes to the difference in performance between urban and suburban school districts, we can and we must do better. The foundation formula needs to be updated and we'll proposed updates when we file our budget later this month," Baker said in his second inaugural address last week.
Baker's budget solutions for school funding, set within the $40-plus billion state budget, more than likely won't address all the issues that the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommended in 2015 that have flummoxed State House leaders when they've tried to implement and pay for the hundreds of millions in increases in funding the report lays out.
Baker's budget proposal, due Jan. 29, will also likely shed some light on the governor's thinking about health care costs. Baker's efforts to corral the MassHealth program wasn't embraced by Democrats, and an assessment on employers to help pay for ever-expanding cost of health care for children and the poor made enemies out of powerful business interests now looking to stamp out the added fee.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the leading voice on Beacon Hill for business and employers, wants to do away with the 2017 assessment fee that props up MassHealth. The group argues that the business community was initially promised relief in the form of a health cost containment law — a law that never materialized when talks between the House and Senate broke down last year.
For the time being, the leading Democrats, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, are their own point-people when it comes to the hot issues of the day and the budget discussions that will occupy top lawmakers' time from now until July. That's because both branches lack chairpeople for the Ways and Means Committees that write up the budget. Spilka and DeLeo, both former budget chairs before being elected to lead their chambers, will soon need to elevate a top lieutenant to handle the day-to-day of the state's fiscal interests.