In addition to the abortion access proposal that's generated headlines in recent weeks, state budget negotiators have also agreed to another major policy change: a Senate proposal to authorize ignition interlock devices for first-time drunk driving offenders.

"That made it in there," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz told the News Service after staff filed the compromise budget (H 5164) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. "That made it in at the end of the day."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has been calling on lawmakers for years to adopt the proposal as another tool to improve public safety in Massachusetts and curb instances of people driving while drunk.

The Senate added the measure to its budget through an amendment offered by Minority Leader Sen. Bruce Tarr who said Massachusetts stands alone as the only state without such an approach to first-time offenders. Tarr cited MADD reports that drunk driving deaths have risen 9 percent since 2014 while arrests are down.

"We have already waited too long to authorize this important tool which can prevent tragedy on our state's roadways," Tarr said after his amendment was approved. If adopted, the measure could "stem the pain and harm from the senseless loss of life at the hands of a drunk driver that could have been prevented with time-tested and road-tested technology," he said.

The budget rider authorizes the registrar of motor vehicles, in all cases involving defendants who operate a vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher, to place a restriction on hardship licenses requiring them to have an ignition interlock device installed on each vehicle they own or lease.

The device is connected to the ignition of a vehicle and prevents the vehicle from starting if it detects the presence of alcohol when an individual blows into a tube. They are already required for repeat offenders, with the costs covered by offenders.

The budget bill includes outside sections that would codify the right to an abortion in state statute and make abortions legal for women after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases where a doctor has diagnosed a fatal fetal anomaly. The provision would also lower the age at which a woman can seek the procedure without parental or court approval from 18 to 16.

Gov. Charlie Baker has not said what he thinks of those budget additions, but in the past has said he supports existing state laws on abortion, but not "late-term" abortions.

Michlewitz said negotiators used the Senate's language on abortion access changes in their final budget.

"We're very proud of the move to incorporate this big step for women's choice in the commonwealth and so we're looking forward to seeing it pass," he said.

Spending Down the Reserve

The House and Senate budget proposals each totaled around $46 billion in spending but negotiators came out of conference committee with a roughly $46.2 billion spending plan. Michlewitz explained that conferees largely opted to fund spending priorities favored by both branches and to draw more from reserves to pay for them.

"There were initiatives on both sides that we wanted to make sure got fully funded," Michlewitz said, shedding insight into how negotiators settled differences during their private talks. "We had a challenging time here because there was less revenue to work with but the need was more."

The budget plan spends $700 million more than Baker recommended, raising questions about how much spending he might veto, and draws $350 million more from the rainy day fund than Baker's revised fiscal 2021 budget.

Michlewitz said the proposed $1.7 billion withdrawal from the state savings would leave the fund with about $1.8 billion heading into the fiscal 2022 budget cycle. Defending the use of reserves, he cited demands for spending to address food insecurity, domestic violence services, substance addiction services and housing.

"It still keeps us in good fiscal shape for FY 22 and beyond," he said. "We still have $1.8 billion in the rainy day fund, which gives us something to work with going forward."

In late October, before lawmakers rolled out their spending plans, Baker forecast a "pretty decent" spending plan for fiscal year 2022, in part because of his faith that Congress will deliver additional relief funds.

"I really do think that for me, the big thing is we have a big rainy day fund that can help us this year and next year, and I do think the feds will get around eventually to at least agreeing on the things they all agreed on previously and just couldn't pass, and if they just do that and our economy continues to get modestly better, I think we'll be OK," Baker said at the time.

The five-months-late state budget is based on a tax revenue assumption that anticipates collections falling by more than 6 percent, or $2 billion this fiscal year. Five months into the fiscal year though, collections are running slightly above receipts for the same period in fiscal 2020, which was before the pandemic struck.

Michlewitz urged caution on tax receipts, but acknowledged they've been "staying somewhat consistent and steady."

The Democrat from Boston's North End also defended the wait-and-see approach to budgeting that lawmakers took this year and which has resulted in the latest state budget in modern history.

"If we had just decided to move forward with a typical budget cycle we would have missed the mark on where we were fiscally," he said. "It made sense to do a delayed timeline, to do temporary budgets, to keep things moving in the commonwealth and to see where we were come the fall. And I think at the end of the day our patience paid off."

He added, "It's worked out in the sense that ... we didn't have to do any drastic cuts within this fiscal cycle. And I said this before, if you had told me that back in March or April that we would be able to get through this without making any drastic cuts I would have told you you were crazy. But the fact is we were able to accomplish that and that's because of patience, hard work, determination and cooperation."

Next Budget Starts Now

The more than 5 percent increase in spending in the fiscal 2021 budget is being proposed without raising taxes or cutting services, and is made possible largely through the heavy reserves use and an increase in federal aid.

Next year's state budget -- the focus of talks that are about to begin this month -- will start with a revenue hole of more than $3 billion due to the use of so much one-time revenue in fiscal 2021. Michlewitz said an announcement is expected soon on a consensus revenue hearing that will likely be held in mid-December.

"We got FY 22 starting pretty soon," he said. "We're going to try to get this back to a normal situation. This certainly has been a unique experience over the last couple of months here and we're going to try to get this thing back into a regular cycle as best as we possibly can."

Baker is due to file his fiscal 2022 budget in late January and Michlewitz said budget officials will aim to reach consensus on likely tax collections for the upcoming budget year by late December or early January.

Issues Kicked Forward

Another major policy decision tucked into the budget extends mail-in voting through March 31, 2021, for use in local elections. Michlewitz predicted mail-in voting would be a topic of debate in the next couple of months, based in part on an evaluation of how the voting process held up in the 2020 elections.

"I think there's going to be a whole host of options that are going to be discussed," he said. "I think we all believe that this was a strong success, the mail-in voting process. I think it worked very well for democracy in Massachusetts and for the access to the ballot box for folks and I think that it's something we will want to consider long-term."

The compromise budget also directs the MBTA to revisit proposed cuts to services should additional federal relief money become available, but dropped a Senate-approved plan to establish a new structure of higher fees for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Both branches this year have approved higher fees for ride-hailing but haven't agreed on a consensus plan.

"I think we're still certainly open to trying to figure out something along those lines with our colleagues in the Senate but we felt the budget wasn't the appropriate vehicle for that," Michlewitz said.

Explaining the decision of House negotiators to go along with the approach recommended in the Senate budget on T service cuts, Michlewitz also noted that controversial and deep MBTA service cuts, now eyed for a Dec. 14 MBTA Board vote, were proposed after House members had filed budget amendments last month.

"It was a little hard for us to maneuver through that while we were trying to proceed with our budget discussions," he said. "The Senate president presented some language. We felt it was something we could work with."

A coalition of patient advocacy groups on Friday celebrated another policy change that made it into the final budget. A 2012 law allowing patients to redeem prescription drug discount coupons at pharmacies to reduce copay costs is due to expire at the end of the year, but the budget includes language extending it to 2023.

"Without the ability to use these prescription discounts many patients would simply go without their medications, their diseases would worsen, and they could well end up back at their doctor's office or the emergency room," Richard Pezzillo, executive director of the New England Hemophilia Association, which is leading the Patients for Prescription Access Coalition, said. "Insurers are increasingly charging patients higher out-of-pocket costs, and these discount programs provide financial relief, which is ever more important as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significantly more financial hardship for so many. We sincerely hope the Governor will keep the language extending the law in the budget and sign it."

The conference committee's budget is expected to clear both branches during sessions on Friday afternoon.