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Many bills abandoned as lawmakers raced to midnight deadline

August 1, 2018

BOSTON (AP) — When Massachusetts lawmakers made a mad dash to finish before the end of the formal session, they left plenty of legislation on the cutting room floor.

Among the bills left unfinished Tuesday were efforts to overhaul the state’s education budget, address a federal crackdown on those in the country illegally and reduce price disparities between large teaching hospitals and smaller community hospitals.

Part of the challenge lay in the complicated, costly and politically vexing nature of some of the bills. Another problem was the chaotic last day of the session as lawmakers battled against a midnight deadline after which they could no long approve controversial bills.

Some of the abandoned bills:

IMMIGRATION

There were plenty of proposals, posturing and even protests over immigration policy during the two-year legislative session, but in the end nothing in the way of new laws.

In July 2017, the state’s highest court ruled Massachusetts law doesn’t allow law enforcement officers to hold individuals solely on the basis of a federal immigration detainer request.

Within days, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill to grant state and local police authority to cooperate with federal immigration officials in cases of people considered dangerous or who had committed violent crimes.

A group of conservative House Republicans filed a separate bill to grant police officers even broader powers.

Senate Democratic leaders pushed an entirely different approach, passing legislation that would sharply limit cooperation between law enforcement agencies and federal immigration officials, and largely prohibit police from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status.

Legislative leaders said there was no consensus on the issue.

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EDUCATION BUDGET

One of the most contentious bills that failed to pass would have addressed how best to spend the billions of dollars the state sets aside each year for local schools. Central to the negotiations is the state’s “foundation budget,” intended to smooth out some of the educational disparities between wealthier communities and poorer ones.

While many think the foundation budget formula is outdated, a legislative fix has proven elusive. Backers of a Senate bill said the House version failed to adequately increase funding for schools with high percentages of low-income students and English-language learners.

Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz faulted House leaders for stonewalling.

“I’ve never seen so many rationalizations and double-standards employed to avoid doing what’s right for kids,” she said.

Rep. Alice Peisch, chair of the House Education Committee, said talks were complicated by new information from state education officials and the “exceptionally complex nature” of calculating the formula for distributing funds.

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DISTRACTED DRIVING

A bill that would prohibit motorists from holding their cellphones and driving at the same time followed the same route as it did in the previous 2015-2016 session: It cleared the Senate before hitting a stop sign in the House.

The proposal to curb distracted driving and expand on the state’s existing ban on texting behind the wheel appeared to have a better shot at passage this time after Baker endorsed the hands-free requirement. But Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo continued to have reservations, and the House never debated the bill.

Safe Roads Alliance, an advocacy group, said it may now try to put the issue before voters as a ballot question.

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COMMUNITY HOSPITALS

Another bill where House and Senate negotiators failed to agree was a health care proposal intended to reduce price disparities between large teaching hospitals and smaller, struggling community hospitals.

The House proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in temporary fees on large hospitals and insurers, with the money going to a trust fund to provide grants to smaller hospitals.

The Senate bill relied more on price floors for insurance payments to hospitals.

Insurers and business groups had raised objections to both approaches, but more so to the fees contained in the House version.

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GENDER IDENTITY

Two bills that addressed sexual orientation and gender identity also stalled.

One was aimed at banning “conversion therapy” for minors. Supporters of the ban say the therapy — which aims to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — is widely discredited by medical and mental health associations. They say the practice is premised on the belief that being LGBTQ is an illness that needs to be cured.

Lawmakers also failed to approve a bill that would allow an applicant for a driver’s license, learner’s permit or ID card to choose “X″ instead of “male or “female.” The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka, said the proposal was meant to recognize the rights of transgender individuals.

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SPENDING THE SURPLUS

After the state exceeded revenue forecasts by about $1.2 billion in the last fiscal year, Baker asked lawmakers to direct a portion of the surplus to public schools. The plan included $72 million to upgrade the physical security of school buildings to protect against attacks such as the February shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida.

But with lawmakers still hashing out the current year budget and trying to wrap up loose ends on other bills, the governor’s plan for using last year’s surplus never got out of the starting gate.

It’s unclear if the Legislature will wait until the next session in January to decide how to use the extra cash, or try to get something passed during informal sessions over the next few months.

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