Thousands of bills will be filed on Beacon Hill this month as state lawmakers kick off their new session. Most will quietly wither away over the course of the next two years, while others — budgets, local matters and likely a few big-ticket policy changes elevated by the top Democrats who set the Legislature’s agenda — will grind their way through the process, onto Gov. Maura Healey’s desk and into the law books.
Here’s a look at some of the major items likely to be part of the debate this term, from labor law to health care costs to access to government.
With an added tax on incomes over $1 million now in effect to fund education and transportation, expect a flood of ideas to surface for how to spend that money. In the speeches they gave to open the term, Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka all pointed to the challenges families face finding and paying for child care. Healey, specifically, said she wants legislation “to make sure every family pays what they can afford, and that care workers are paid what they deserve.”
Healey and Spilka are both eyeing ways to make community college free but differ on specifics. Spilka wants to eliminate charges for all students, while Healey focuses on students over 25 without college degrees.
In the K-12 realm, a different fight is brewing. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a powerful political player that spent millions to help pass the new tax, wants to win the right to strike for public school teachers.
“It is a human and labor right, and our members will be exercising it out of love for their students and out of public service … when there is a necessary need to do that to secure good working conditions and learning conditions,” MTA President Max Page said at a state education board meeting last month.
State law prohibits public employees from striking, but teachers in communities including Malden and Haverhill embarked on short strikes last year. Jeff Riley, the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner, is concerned by the idea and how teachers’ strikes would affect students’ classroom time. An active advocacy campaign could put pressure on legislative Democrats who consider themselves friends of labor.
2. Tax reform
On the pile of last session’s unfinished business, the biggest brick is the tax break package lawmakers put aside and pledged to return to in the new term. The concern, at the time, was over how much relief the state could afford after paying $3 billion in one-time rebates back to taxpayers under an obscure 1986 law. Mariano is interested in revisiting that law, and he and Healey suggested their approaches to tax relief will be informed by a hearing state budget writers hold Jan. 24 to get a handle on revenue estimates for the next fiscal year.
Spilka, for her part, says she wants progressive tax relief passed “soon” in 2023. Healey’s first budget proposal, due in March, could be a vehicle for tax changes. Healey voiced support for the reforms lawmakers sought last year — breaks for renters, seniors and caregivers, plus estate tax changes and an increase to the earned income tax credit — and she also has her own child tax credit proposal.
Massachusetts has long held the distinction as the only state where the governor, Judiciary and Legislature all claim to be exempt from the public records law. Healey said she won’t claim full exemption as her predecessors have done, and that she’d support legislation curbing exemptions for lawmakers and the courts. That could translate to renewed interest in opening up access to legislative records and communications — though probably not from most legislators themselves.
Last session, the House and Senate never agreed on rules governing the operations of their joint committees, and one sticking point was how much access the public should have to written testimony and committee vote results.
Soon, lawmakers will have to decide the fate of remote public meetings, a pandemic innovation that’s been hailed as a win for transparency and civic engagement. The authorization for remote meeting access lapses at the end of March. Available options include letting it expire, temporarily extending it once more, or permanently codifying it into law.
4. Health care
The House and the Senate agree: Something must be done about the high health care costs burdening Massachusetts families and businesses. They've long been at odds, though, about where to start. Spilka this session wants to pass a bill tackling prescription drug prices, as the Senate’s done twice before, and Mariano wants to return to a priority of his from last session: protecting community hospitals against expansions by bigger-name, higher-priced health systems. Neither has caught on with the other branch in the past, but legislative leaders have at times before been able to negotiate deals and trades to get their favored bills through.
Meanwhile, advocates who want Massachusetts to adopt a government-run, single-payer health care system will maintain their efforts. This year, after voters in 20 House districts indicated their support for Medicare-for-all policies in nonbinding ballot questions last fall.
Healey wants to add a housing secretary to her cabinet, amplifying efforts to take a bite out of the crisis of ever-increasing home prices and limited supply. To do so, she intends to put a reorganization plan before lawmakers in her first 100 days in office. Once she does, they’ll need to act quickly — under the Massachusetts Constitution, a committee hearing will be required within 10 days. If lawmakers don’t vote on the plan within 60 days of it being filed, it’ll automatically become law.
That timeline means a new housing secretary could be in office by mid-June. Healey also has her budget office looking for unused state facilities that could be converted into housing within one year, which could also translate into near-term legislative action.
6. Court ruling responses
Last summer, the Legislature worked quickly to rework the state’s gun laws in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a New York law around requirements for carrying a concealed weapon. Mariano wants to keep looking to make sure there's no further consequences from that court decision.
Decisions from the state's high court will also be in the mix. A December ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court that the state Constitution doesn’t protect doctors who prescribe terminally ill patients medication to end their lives could add to the momentum behind the yearslong push to legalize medical aid in dying. Supporters could have an ally in Healey, who says she agrees with the concept but wants lawmakers to figure out the necessary safeguards.
The SJC also tossed from last fall’s ballot a question that would have had voters weigh in on the employment dynamics for gig-economy drivers working with companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart. That left the question of whether the drivers are better categorized as employees or independent contractorsstill unsettled — and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by the state attorney general’s office, filed by now-Gov. Healey. Some drivers, working with labor groups, hope lawmakers will grant them the right to unionize while that fight plays out.