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Jockeying Now Likely for House and Senate Budget Posts

September 5, 2018

Lowell Sun

By Michael P. Norton

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Voters on Tuesday tossed Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez out of office, which means the House and Senate are on the verge of an unusual occurrence: having two brand new Ways and Means committee chairs at the same time.

At the outset of the 2017-2018 session, Sen. Karen Spilka of Ashland was chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee under former Senate President Stan Rosenberg’s leadership hierarchy. Former Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill started the session as House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s Ways and Means Committee chair.

When Dempsey ditched Beacon Hill mid-2017 for a lobbying post, DeLeo appointed Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, to take the powerful chairmanship. But challenger Nika Elugardo’s message that Sanchez and DeLeo are out of step with progressive policies won the day during Tuesday’s Democratic primary, and she is now set to take his House seat in January.

Over in the Senate, Rosenberg resigned his presidency in December 2017 and later resigned from the Senate altogether amid a scandal involving his husband Brian Hefner. Spilka rounded up the votes to succeed Senate President Harriette Chandler, who took on the role after Rosenberg, and this summer Spilka reliquished the Ways and Means chair.

The unusual chain of events means jockeying is likely to intensify in the weeks and months ahead for the Ways and Means posts, which have been used over the years as a launching pad to the top leadership positions. DeLeo, like Spilka and others before them, ran Ways and Means before rising to the top.

Spilka has entrusted Salem Democrat Joan Lovely with Ways and Means duties for the remainder of 2018, but it’s unclear whether Lovely, the committee’s vice chair, will be named chair in 2019. Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett had served as Ways and Means vice chair, but was shifted into an assistant majority leader role by Chandler while he was competing with Spilka and others for the Senate presidency. Jamaica Plain Democrat Sonia Chang-Diaz currently serves as assistant vice chair of Senate Ways and Means.

In the House, Ways and Means Vice Chairman Stephen Kulik of Worthington is not seeking re-election. Rep. Liz Malia, who also lives in Jamaica Plain, is the assistant vice chair of House Ways and Means. DeLeo, who expects to remain as speaker in 2019, has dozens of Democrats to choose from to fill the Ways and Means chairmanship and the longest continuously serving House speaker faces fresh decisions about whether to swing the House to the left or right.

“In terms of replacement, I think that right now most of my efforts will be on, obviously, into November and we’ll be down the road before we start considering who will serve and whatever position that may be,” DeLeo said.

Under Spilka, the Senate is expected to continue to press the type of progressive Democrat agenda that it has in recent years under Chandler and Rosenberg; a big question is whether the House shakes some centrist positions to move closer to the Senate or keeps its alliance with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

House and Senate leaders usually do not announce their leadership teams and committee assignments until February or March. If that schedule holds, Sanchez, as a lame duck legislator, will play a role along with Lovely in deciding how to allocate the fiscal 2018 budget surplus, along with potentially deciding on major bills affecting consumer protections against data breaches, civics education, and the taxation and regulation of short-term rentals.

DeLeo and Spilka let formal sessions expire for the year on July 31 without taking action on a $583 million supplemental spending plan filed in July by Baker to close the books on fiscal year 2018. That package was highlighted by an invetment in school safety and education initiatives. Comptroller Thomas Shack faces statutory deadlines to close the books on last fiscal year, and lawmakers have already failed to meet Shack’s recommended deadline for action of Aug. 31.

Massachusetts collected about $1.2 billion more in tax revenue than it had expected. About $1 billion in surplus funds are being used to address underfunded accounts or socked away in the state rainy day fund, which left the administration with up to $200 million in funds that have not been earmarked for any purpose.

The governor’s $150 million bundle of one-time investments includes $70 million to improve training for students, staff and first responders to address and report threats in schools. It also includes $40 million in additional aid to school districts to hire school counselors, social workers and mental health workers, and $20 million in matching grants for security and communication upgrades in K-12 schools and in public higher education.

The notion of two new Ways and Means chairs at once is not unprecedented. In 2011, Dempsey took over for former Rep. Charley Murphy after DeLeo shook up his leadership team, and was joined at the negotiating table by Sen. Stephen Brewer, who former Senate President Therese Murray chose to take over for former Sen. Steven Panagiotakos.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny, who closely monitors state budget and policy debates, said the new Ways and Means chairs will take over at a time when lawmakers are struggling to understand the sustainability of a bump in one-time revenues, local impacts of global affairs including tariff, tax and trade policies, and “how long the good economy will last.”

“I would say it’s challenging in any year to put together the state budget,” McAnneny said. “There are a lot of competing priorities, a lot of moving parts. It becomes even that much more challenging when you’re new. That will always be an issue.”

She added, “You work very closely with your counterpart. It takes time to build that rapport and that trust. That will be happening at the same time as they learn the mechanics of the jobs and all that it entails.”

[Matt Murphy contributed reporting]

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