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Health Care, Education Bill Talks Falter at Finish Line

August 1, 2018
Massachusetts Lawmakers in Final Sprint to Pass Bills

Lowell Sun

BOSTON -- The House and Senate stumbled across the finish line Tuesday night as talks over health care and education funding reforms collapsed in failure, but lawmakers still managed to send Gov. Charlie Baker economic development and opioid addiction treatment bills and compromised on animal welfare as they wrapped up formal sessions for 2018 and turned their attention to the coming campaigns and elections.

The final day of formal sessions on Beacon Hill turned into an exercise of “hurry up and wait,” as Rep. Joseph Wagner put it, as lawmakers spent hours waiting to see if major compromises could be reached.

While health care and public school financing bills imploded, lawmakers pushed past their soft midnight deadline to pass a $1.15 billion jobs bill that included a previously elusive agreement to restrict businesses’ use of non-compete agreements in employee contracts.

“I think that we’ve accomplished a lot this year. We’ve had an incredibly productive session. When you look back, every single week we did four, five, six bills if not more, some of them very big bills,” Senate President Karen Spilka told reporters early Wednesday morning. “Clearly, though, we ended up not crossing the finish line with the Foundation Budget Review Commission, health care and some other bills.”

Spilka added, “We will regroup and start again and plan on getting those done.”

Lawmakers left unfinished bills to ban the use of conversion therapy to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of minors, to allow residents to list their gender as “X” on a driver’s license, and to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that dealt a blow to public sector unions.

In an emailed statement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House “passed vital measures this legislative session” and said he is proud of the work of representatives.

Earlier in the night, lawmakers agreed to a opioid abuse prevention bill strongly desired by Gov. Charlie Baker that would expand access to the overdose reversing drug Narcan and roll out medication assisted addiction treatment in some correction institutions.

Attention will now turn to re-election campaigns, and for leaderships assured of their return to Beacon Hill, preparations for the next session when health care and education will be back on the front burner along with housing, sports betting and other issues.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who is also running for re-election, got much of what he wanted Tuesday night, with the major exception being a zoning reform bill to clear the path for more housing construction. House leaders considered bringing his bill to the floor for a vote Tuesday night, and would not rule out trying to advance it during informal sessions in the coming weeks after trying to talk with members who still had concerns.

“I think many of the things that fell victim to the clock fell victim to the clock not because of the governor’s relationship with the Legislature but because of the Legislature’s relationship with the Legislature,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said after the Senate adjourned. “So many things fell by the wayside here, but I don’t think that can be ascribed to the fact that they were sponsored or supported by the governor.”

House and Senate Democrats had set their sights on stabilizing community hospitals and addressing underfunded local education accounts but could not reach agreements on those key measures, punctuating a rocky start to the relationship between new Senate President Karen Spilka and veteran House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The two Democrats squabbled over scheduling in the run-up to the final days of formal sessions, and could not help facilitate deals on two major policy priorities despite a short, evening visit by Spilka to DeLeo’s office in a gesture of cooperation.

On health care, House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano told the News Service, “We were just too far apart philosophically to a come to a resolution that fit our agenda.”

The Quincy Democrat said the House was focused on trying to find a way to financially stabilize community hospitals in the short-term with assessments on insurers and large hospitals, while he said the Senate “wanted a market driven approach.” “We just thought we couldn’t wait,” Mariano said.

Mariano has negotiated numerous heath care reform bills over his career, but he said this would be the first time he has failed to “come to agreement in the middle” with the Senate.

“This isn’t going away. There’s some frustration. You change jockeys in the middle of a horse race and there will be slightly different philosophies, but we are going to have to look for other ways to fund this. We’ll have to come back to it in January,” Mariano said, a clear reference to Spilka’s ascension to Senate president only last Thursday.

Sen. James Welch, the Springfield Democrat who led the negotiations on the Senate side, concurred with Mariano’s assessment that the problem is not going away. “Unfortunately, we could not come to an agreement to address the ever-rising costs of health care,” he said.

“We won’t be starting from ground zero next session,” Welch said.

While the Senate passed its version of health care legislation last November, the House did not act until late June.

Some on the Senate side began to immediately point the finger at the influence of special interests, and the sway they hold over House members.

“It was clear that Partners and the Massachusetts Hospital Association were making the calls and we couldn’t accept that,” said one senior senator official. According to that source, the Senate made an offer to the House that included an assessment on larger hospitals and insurers similar to the House bill.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the lead Senate conferee on the schools funding bill, called it a “dark day for our Commonwealth” and labeled the bill’s failure “unfathomable and inexcusable.”

“I can’t explain it. I can’t explain it,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat told the News Service. “It is -- exasperating doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.”

The two bills grew out of the 2015 recommendations of a Foundation Budget Review Commission, co-chaired by Chang-Diaz and lead House conferee Rep. Alice Peisch. They took different approaches to implementing the recommendations. The Massachusetts Teachers Association said the Senate version of the bill would increase state education spending by more than $1 billion annually, and the House version by about a third of that amount.

Chang-Diaz said House leadership rejected all the Senate’s offers “moved the goal posts, and then killed the bill completely, stunningly, by rejecting one of their own proposals.”

Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, issued a statement on behalf of the three House conferees, saying new information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “complicated” negotiations and “the exceptionally complex nature of recalculating various increments to the formula as we traded proposals.”

“While the House is disappointed we were not able to come to workable resolution, we remain hopeful and committed to continuing our efforts implementing the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations,” Peisch said.

Chang-Diaz disputed the idea that time was a limiting factor, identifying the obstacle instead as “political will.”

One of the final bills (H 4868) to be passed, close to 1 a.m. Wednesday, was a more-than-$1 billion economic development bill that doles out grants for workforce training programs and public infrastructure projects across the state.

The popular MassWorks municipal grant program is funded at $250 million -- a compromise between the House’s proposed $300 million and the Senate’s $200 million. The bill also includes $537.8 million in local economic development aid grants, according to a bill summary provided by the Economic Development Committee.

The legislation also includes $50 million for grants for dredging projects in coastal communities, $50 million to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund for projects that would advance and promote tourism at cultural sites, $100 million for construction and improvements at the Raymond L. Flynn Cruiseport in South Boston to accommodate larger vessels, and $25 million for matching grants to enable colleges and universities to participate in and receive federal funding through the Manufacturing USA program.

The weekend of Aug. 11 and 12 will be set aside as a sales tax holiday under the bill, to allow shoppers to make most purchases without having to pay the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

The bill also strikes an agreement to reform the use of non-competition clauses in employment contracts, an agreement that eluded legislators at the end of formal sessions two years ago.

Non-compete agreements would be allowed under the bill but only if the restricted period is limited to one year in most cases and two years in certain situations, “the agreement is no broader than necessary,” and the agreement contains a “garden leave” clause that would allow employees to collect a salary while they are prohibited from working elsewhere of up to 50 percent of the workers’ highest annual pay during the last two years of employment.

The House adjourned at 1:12 a.m. Wednesday, and the Senate at 1:20 a.m. Both branches plan to meet in informal sessions on Wednesday.

Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, classified the Legislature’s end-of-session results as a “mixed bag.”

“We enacted some very important bills, and I think we left some other issues on the table,” he said. “And I think that’s unfortuante, but that’s what happens when you have this kind of a logjam at the end of session. It’s inevitable that you’re not going to get to the point that you had hoped to get.”

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