Lawmakers pass energy, economic bills as formal session ends
By STEVE LeBLANC and BOB SALSBERG
Aug. 01, 2018
BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts lawmakers wrapped up their formal session by passing an economic development bill that includes a sales tax holiday for shoppers on the weekend of Aug. 11-12.
The measure was one of a series of bills given final approval as lawmakers rushed to meet a Tuesday midnight deadline — and then continued on into the wee hours of Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, the House and Senate passed bills meant to address the state's opioid addiction crisis and increase support for wind and other renewable energy.
The compromise energy bill calls for Massachusetts to boost its dependence on renewable energy sources by at least 1 percent annually starting in 2019.
Some clean energy advocates complained the bill, which received near-unanimous support in the House, doesn't go far enough. The bill later was approved by the Senate by a unanimous vote.
"Lawmakers could have knocked it out of the park," said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. "Instead, they only got a base hit."
While the legislation would boost the state's commitment to clean energy sources such as offshore wind and support new energy storage technologies, Hellerstein said it would not undo restrictions on solar energy production that are holding back prospective solar projects in local communities.
A bill aimed at helping curb the state's opioid addiction crisis was also approved and sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's desk during the waning hours of the formal session.
The bill would let those who end up in the emergency room as a result of an overdose be taken directly to care outside the emergency department, instead of being released back to the street.
The bill also would create a process to credential "recovery coaches" who help those trying to remain drug-free, mandate the electronic prescribing of drugs by 2020 and allow for the partial filling of prescriptions.
Democratic Sen. Cindy Friedman called the bill "a game-changer."
Two major pieces of legislation failed to meet the deadline.
One would have addressed how best to spend the billions of dollars the state sets aside each year for local schools. At the center of those negotiations is the state's so-called foundation budget, which was meant to help smooth out some of the educational disparities between wealthier communities and poorer ones.
Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, one of the lead negotiators, said the Senate made multiple concessions in order to reach a deal and faulted House leaders for stonewalling.
"This is unfathomable and inexcusable," she said.
Rep. Alice Peisch, chair of the House Education Committee, disagreed with Chang-Diaz's assessment. She said there was good faith negotiations on both sides but that the talks were complicated by new information that was received from the state education officials and the "exceptionally complex nature" of calculating the formula for distributing funds.
Another bill where House and Senate negotiators failed to reach compromise was a health care proposal intended to reduce price disparities between large teaching hospitals and smaller community hospitals that are struggling to keep pace.
Other bills made it partially through the process, but failed to reach final approval in both chambers.
One that would have emerged late in the evening was aimed at helping unions.
The bill came in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that found public employees can't be forced to pay fees to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining. Labor supporters — many of whom had been bracing for the ruling — feared it could financially weaken unions and affect millions of government workers.
The bill would require non-union workers to pay any anticipated proportional costs and fees prior to a grievance or arbitration hearing and that failure to pay those costs would exempt the union from further responsibility to the non-union member.
Another bill that came close to passing would strengthen the state's animal cruelty laws in part by banning the drowning of animals, which is not explicitly outlawed in Massachusetts.
The bill would also remove a requirement to automatically kill animals involved in animal fighting, prohibit engaging in sexual contact with an animal and require property owners to search for abandoned animals within three days after a property is vacated.
The bill received initial approval in both chambers and could pass during the informal session, provided no one objects.
On Monday, lawmakers shipped other measures to Baker, including a compromise bill that would apply state and local lodging taxes to short-term rentals, such as those offered through Airbnb and other online platforms.
Also on Baker's desk is a measure that would automatically update the registration status of voters when they interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth, the state's Medicaid program.
Baker has 10 days to act on bills that reach his desk. With the formal session over, lawmakers would not have an opportunity to override any gubernatorial vetoes.
Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo said House lawmakers passed important legislation during the past 19 months, "including those relating to paid family and medical leave, criminal justice reform, minimum wage, energy and environmental policy, and gun safety."
The Legislature can continue to meet informally until the end of the year. During that time only measures that are completely unopposed can pass.