The end of July is always a busy time on Beacon Hill, with the legislature rushing to wrap up its work before the summer break at the end of the month. But this year seems even busier and thornier than usual. GBH News political reporter Adam Reilly joined Morning Edition host Paris Alston to give a rundown of the most important storylines on Beacon Hill, from abortion access to tax breaks to who is pushing political agendas. Here’s are the four big themes he’s keeping an eye on.
Abortion access legislation
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, the refrain among political leaders in Massachusetts was that providers and people seeking abortions in Massachusetts would be relatively safe. After all, abortion was codified in state law when the legislature passed the ROE Act in 2020, overriding Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto to allow for abortions after 24 weeks under some circumstances and lower the age for abortion without parental consent from 18 to 16.
Now the Massachusetts House and Senate have both “embraced a variety of proposals aimed at protecting providers, protecting patients, and expanding access,” Reilly said. But under state law, abortions are only allowed after 24 weeks in the cases of “lethal” fetal anomalies, so Massachusetts residents still have to travel out of state for care when they learn of “severe” fetal anomalies late in their pregnancies. And the two legislative bodies aren’t in lockstep on a proposal to broaden access that would cover those cases.
“This is something that advocates are championing, that they're pushing really hard,” Reilly said. “And the Senate, intriguingly, is not ready to take that step.”
Reilly called it an “unexpected point of friction.” Some leaders are saying Baker would likely veto such legislation, though it passed the State House with a veto-proof majority. There are also arguments that the legislature, two weeks away from the end of its session, won’t have time to override a veto.
“The timeline explanation, to me at least, doesn't entirely add up,” Reilly said. If the state Senate had the votes to pass such a bill in the coming days, he said, the legislature would have plenty of time.
“I think something’s going on behind the scenes here,” he said. “I don’t know if there are members of the Senate who are personally uncomfortable with this, whom Senate President Karen Spilka is trying to protect. Spilka has seemed a little more cautious than her counterpart in the House, [Speaker] Ron Mariano, over the years.”
Changes in tax cuts from surprising advocates
The legislature is going forward with tax reforms: One-time payments of $250 per person from a budget surplus, and a variety of changes to the tax code.
“They want to ease the burden on seniors, renters, parents and lower-wage earners,” Reilly said, though he pointed out that members of the House have also suggested raising the threshold for the estate tax from $1 million to $2 million, meaning fewer people would be subject to estate taxes.
“The Senate hasn't released the details of their plan yet, but they seem to be on board with estate tax reform as well,” Reilly said. “And that's an area where a lot of people think that benefits are primarily going to go to more wealthy residents.”
Members of the Legislature have also made some “interesting omissions” from Baker’s tax proposals. They left out a change to the capital gains tax that would benefit the wealthy, but also declined to raise the minimum income level for paying state income taxes. Right now, anyone making more than $8,000 a year has to pay state taxes. Baker had suggested raising that threshold to $12,400 for single filers and $24,800 for joint filers, estimating it would eliminate the state income tax for 234,000 of Massachusetts' lowest earners.
“We’ve got this strange reversal of expectations,” Reilly said. “You’ve got a business-friendly Republican governor who was proposing a form of tax relief for the very poorest Massachusetts residents. And the generally progressive House and Senate aren’t on board with it, which is striking.”
He added a caveat: The session isn’t over, and things may change in the next two weeks.
“Even though they said, ‘We’ve got this broad agreement on what we want to do,’ the final details are still being hashed out,” he said. “A sort of narcissism of small differences can take hold on Beacon Hill sometimes. Even if there's broad agreement, getting across the finish line — if there are small disagreements on something and everyone’s sticking to their guns — that can be difficult.”
A change in power dynamics
For years, Reilly said, the conventional wisdom has been that the Massachusetts House is the more conservative body, both culturally and fiscally, and the Senate “is more freewheeling, more progressive.”
“They get really ambitious with big liberal reforms, and they kind of have to drag the House along with them,” Reilly said.
Now, he said, that isn’t always true.
“At least sometimes, including in this abortion fight, the roles are being reversed,” he said. “The House is out in front on this. The House is out in front when it came to giving undocumented immigrants access to driver's licenses, the House right now has a prison construction moratorium, which is more rigorous than the Senate’s.”
“You can’t tell who’s going to take a lead on which issue,” Reilly said. “And it makes it fascinating.”
The MassGOP’s direction as Democrats hope to clinch one-party control
Both chambers are dominated by Democrats: The House has 126 Democrats to 27 Republicans, with one representative not enrolled in either party and six vacant seats. The state Senate has 37 Democrats and just three Republicans. Come November, Reilly expects that Attorney General Maura Healey will likely be elected governor, giving Democrats control of the executive branch.
But Reilly says the MassGOP could be missing an opportunity to highlight where the State House is choosing not to move forward with some of Baker’s tax breaks.
“It is interesting to me to imagine a different political landscape in Massachusetts in which the Republican Party might be able to take advantage of the fact that Governor Baker is pushing low-income tax reform and the House and Senate aren’t going along,” Reilly said. “But he’s not running for a third term, as you know. And the people who are seeking to succeed him as the Republican nominees — this isn’t something that they’re really interested in doing. They’re interested more in running to the right than in showing what they could be doing for the center, I would argue. So I’d say that’s an opportunity missed for the MassGOP right now.”