Lawmakers at the State House will return to work tomorrow for the beginning of formal legislative sessions. Mike Deehan, GBH State House reporter, joined host Aaron Schachter on Morning Edition to preview what the Legislature is looking to accomplish this year.
Aaron Schachter: So legislators are returning to work tomorrow, but are they returning to work at the State House? Is the building open?
Mike Deehan: Not yet. It's really the only state or provincial capitol in the country, maybe on the continent, that's still closed to the public, according to some reports. There is a plan in place to bring staff back, bring lawmakers back, open up these offices and then eventually get it open to the public. But, with omicron spiking, as it is with any kind of plan that's in the Legislature's hands, it's going to be a slow plan. So, I wouldn't expect to see the doors open anytime soon.
Schachter: Well, some work is still getting done. Before the holidays, Governor Baker signed a bill that deploys a portion of the federal ARPA funds, preserving about half, a little more than $2.3 billion, for future use. Do we know yet if lawmakers intend to spend any of that money this session?
Deehan: They very well could. I think that was really the intention of putting that ARPA federal funding bill together in the first half of the session, and now this is the second half of the two-year session. So there could very well be an intention to do another big spending bill. I think one of the questions here now is, do they put it into the annual state budget, which keeps the state running, it funds all the agencies, departments, public workers, things like that. Do they just make a big super budget, including all this one time federal money? Or, do they separate it out — do the budget just with state money and do a federal spending bill?
But it really is important because if they're putting the stuff into the budget in the budget process, it can slow things down. It can be just as lengthy as we've seen these things go before. There could just as well be a lot of enthusiasm over another spending bill that will happen after the budget. So then we're looking at a springtime budget cycle and then another spending bill, possibly in the summer, which would be a lot for these guys over here.
You know, there's a narrow pipeline of priorities, and that kind of spending stuff would really take up a lot of the things, maybe to the detriment of other policy. Maybe they can chew gum and walk at the same time.
Schachter: You just said the word that we're looking for: priorities. What else? What are the priorities coming up in the second half of the session?
Deehan: If you turn to other kinds of non-spending priorities, what laws and policy the Legislature might wants to pass, you're looking at two different chambers with very different ideas. There are some big issues in the world, like health care reform and just health care improvement in general, on the tips of many tongues around here on Beacon Hill.
But if you look at what the Senate wants to do, which is a huge increase in mental health services, behavioral health, the Senate wants to make insurance companies cover a lot more mental health services, things like annual checkups, things like that that we don't really have in the state yet. That aligns a bit with what Governor Baker's thinking. However, the House really hasn't made much of a peep on whether or not they agree on that kind of thing. House Speaker Mariano has said that he wants to pass a bill to stabilize local hospitals and community hospitals, but he hasn't really weighed in at all on the mental health care side of this.
We could very well see a bill that does all of that or we could see them kind of compete with each other and not get on the same page and then nothing happens. I think you're seeing the House and Senate priorities have been quite different outside of COVID — which they have been getting along with. Outside of that, their policy preferences have been wildly different.
"You're looking at two different chambers with very different ideas."-Mike Deehan, GBH State House reporter
Schachter: What are the other big issues?
Deehan: I think sports betting is definitely something that's going to be coming up. That's something that the House really wants to do. The Senate seems to have no interest — they're kind of dragging their heels on what their plan for that would be.
You know, in all this time and all these hearings and process and it comes down to two chambers that might have radically different bills and different plans, and then they try to jam them together and come up with a compromise very late in the day, usually within days or hours of the end of their sessions. And that's where things tend to fall apart — they put it off, and then the two chambers, both dominated by Democrats, just don't see eye to eye and can't make these compromises happen, increasingly.
Schachter: And what's the pressure this year to get done?
Deehan: Really, the pressure is that spending; the pressure is sports betting from these outside industries. [They] are saying, what we need to do this — other states have definitely legalized this already, other states are doing [it, and] that Massachusetts might be seen as falling behind.