The Senate later this week will debate a $261.6 million spending bill that does not include House-backed election reforms and takes a similar, but not identical, approach to future MBTA oversight that could put the branches on track to enter formal negotiations over another time sensitive piece of legislation.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday released its redrafted version of the $257 million fiscal 2021 supplemental budget (H 3871) that the House passed on June 10 — including its recommended new composition for an MBTA board that is slightly different from what the House approved.
Senators have until 11 a.m. Wednesday to file amendments to the redrafted bill, which is slated for debate Thursday. The new fiscal year starts on July 1, which is also when the current MBTA oversight board expires and when House and Senate lawmakers are supposed to have reached agreement on a separate fiscal 2022 budget.
The Senate redraft (S 2480) includes $261.6 million in gross fiscal year 2021 spending, half of which ($131 million) would be designated for early educator stabilization grants, workforce supports and system-wide technology upgrades through the federal Child Care & Development Block Grant. The net cost of the bill to the state would be $64.1 million.
There’s also $27.9 million in one-time supplemental payments to families that receive welfare benefits, $31.9 million for the Medical Assistance Trust Fund, $13 million to pay for National Guard activations, $12.5 million to help pay for implementation of the recent policing reform law, $11 million for the State Police's pandemic-related costs, and $5 million for the new Police Officer Standards & Training Commission, according to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
When it comes to MBTA governance, the Senate Ways and Means bill closely mirrors the structure of a House proposed successor to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, but with a few key differences.
Originally created in 2015, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board was set to expire last summer. Lawmakers agreed to extend it for another year and it is now due to be eliminated when the fiscal year ends after June 30.
The proposals coming out of both branches each recommend a seven-member board with the secretary of transportation serving in an ex officio capacity, the governor picking five board members with particular backgrounds, and one member to be appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent group representing the interests of the 176 cities and towns who direct their tax dollars to the transit agency.
But the Senate Ways and Means proposal diverges from the House’s recommendation when it comes to the guardrails around the governor's appointments.
The House bill would require the governor to pick one member with experience in safety, one with experience in transportation operations, one with a background in finance, one member from a list of three people submitted by the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and one member who is an MBTA rider.
The Senate would require that the MBTA Advisory Board's appointee have municipal government experience in the T’s service area and experience in transportation operations, transportation planning, housing policy, urban planning, or public or private finance. It would also require the governor to pick one person with a background in transportation operations and safety, one person with experience in public or private finance, one member with a background in transportation or urban planning, one member from a list of three people submitted by the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and one member with municipal government experience in the T’s service area.
One of those five gubernatorial picks would also have to be an MBTA rider who lives in an environmental justice community.
The Senate also calls for more mandated subcommittees of the new board. Whereas the House bill would require the board to establish subcommittees on safety, and audit and finance, the Senate would require subcommittees on safety, health and environment, planning and workforce development, and audit and finance.
The Senate would also require that the new MBTA board meet more often than the House prescribed. The House called for the new board to meet at least 12 times a year and the Senate is looking to up that requirement to 20 meetings a year including at least one meeting each month. To make up for it, the Senate would make annual stipends of $12,000 available to board members, compared to the $6,000 annual stipends in the House bill.
The appropriate number and frequency of public FMCB meetings — it was required under its original statute to meet for 36 sessions per year, according to the governor — has been debated in the past. In December 2019, a months-long review of the T’s safety pointed out that the meetings took too much time away from MBTA leadership and staff that could be devoted to day-to-day operations.
“The FMC Board was put in place in 2015 to tackle a myriad of issues and they’ve done a terrific job. At this point, the board should meet less frequently so that management can focus more fully on improving operations at the T,“ Baker said in late 2019.
Potentially setting up another issue that might need to be resolved by a conference committee, the Senate’s version of the supplemental budget bill does not include the House provisions to make mail-in and expanded early voting permanent. The Senate previously approved a pandemic policy extensions bill that included a temporary extension of mail-in voting through Dec. 15.
Election Laws Committee Co-chair Sen. Barry Finegold, who filed legislation (S 468) that included Election Day voter registration on behalf of Secretary of State William Galvin, told the News Service that he hopes to see the Senate bring forward broader voting legislation separate from the mid-year spending bill.
“I applaud [the House] for being so gung ho to do something, but I think at the end of the day, it’s probably best to do it through the legislative process and I’m hopeful that’s how we’re going to do it,” Finegold said. He added, “I think that we need to take a look at everything. I would prefer, like we’ve done twice already, a major election law reform bill, and same-day [registration] should definitely be a part of it.”
The House’s decision to append permanent mail-in voting and expanded early voting authorization, but no other electoral changes, to a supplemental budget bill frustrated some election reform advocates who want lawmakers to take more comprehensive action.
Several proposals before the Election Laws Committee would allow prospective voters to register and cast ballots on the same day, a practice already in place in at least 21 other states. Other legislation would require corrections officials to ensure access to voting for inmates who remain eligible, such as those on pre-trial detention or held on misdemeanors.
Kristina Mensik, national campaigns director for The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said a coalition of advocates supports the mail-in and early voting reforms as policy but remains concerned that lawmakers would not circle back for additional action on the topic later in the 2021-2022 lawmaking session if voting changes were added to the budget bill.
“In any given legislative session, we’re realistically going to have one bite at the apple,” Mensik said in an interview. “If this mail-in and extended early voting passes through a budget amendment, there just won't be the appetite to take up and move more election reform.”