Massachusetts Legislature Negotiating Extending the 2019-2020 Session Beyond July 31st
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing unprecedented hurdles for the Legislature, the House and Senate are discussing the extension of the 2019-2020 legislative session beyond the statutorily mandated deadline of July 31, 2020. On Wednesday, the House unanimously voted to pass HB4910 – Order Suspending Joint Rule 12A, to extend the session beyond the July 31 deadline. At this time, the Senate has not made a formal action in agreement or disagreement with the House’s proposal. While the House’s legislation permits the extension of the session beyond the statutory deadline of July 31, language does not explicitly identify and end date. The extension will allow the Legislature to continue to meet in formal sessions to debate and advance significant pieces of legislation left on the table, including bills relative to: economic development, climate change, transportation investments, health care, police reforms, and the FY2021 state budget.
1. Economic Development
On Tuesday, July 28, the House passed HB4887 – An Act enabling partnerships for growth (156 Y/3 N). In the presumed final week of the formal session, House leadership advanced the economic development bill to the floor for debate, which became a “catch all” piece of legislation for House members eager to secure support for their sectors and communities. The final bill included provisions relative to the authorization and regulation of sports betting in the Commonwealth, and several items directly supporting the service industry, which has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Such provisions include expanded outdoor table service, outdoor alcohol service, and capping third party delivery service fees to 15%. The Senate is schedule to take up HB4887 in a formal session on Thursday, July 30.
2. Climate Change
In January of 2020, the Senate passed three energy-related pieces of legislation aimed at addressing next-generation climate policy, energy savings, and electric vehicles. On Wednesday, July 29, the House filed its own energy legislation in response to the Senate’s next-generation climate policy bill (SB2500), HB4912 – An Act creating a 2050 roadmap to a clean and thriving commonwealth, which includes, but is not limited to, provisions related to an emissions roadmap to meet 2050 targets, net metering, and grid modernization. The House is expected to debate HB4912 in a formal session on Thursday, July 30.
3. Transportation Bond Bill
In March, the House passed HB4547 – An Act authorizing and accelerating transportation investment, an $18 billion investment built in part from projected revenues of a House fee and tax bill passed in the House in May. This bill raises the gas tax by five cents, increases the corporate minimum excise tax, increases fees on ride hailing services, and closes the rental car sales tax exemption. With HB4530 – An Act relative to transportation finance projected to bring in approximately $130 to $145 million annually, House leadership increased the bottom line of HB4547 to support additional projects such as improving roadways approaching two Cape Cod bridges and federal highway projects. HB4547 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means and is awaiting further action.
4. Health Care
While the Legislature failed to produce a successful piece of health care legislation last session, members are now working toward results. On June 25, the Legislature resumed health care discussions and the Senate unanimously passing SB2796 – An Act putting patients first. The Senate legislation includes provisions related to telehealth, scope of practice and out-of-network billing measures. On Wednesday, July 29, the House also unanimously passed their version of the legislation, HB4916. Both bills address issues relative to telehealth reimbursement, expanding the scope of practice and protections against surprise billing. Within these provisions, the House and Senate differ on several details, which will likely lead to the creation of a Conference Committee to iron out the differences and ensure a single piece of health care legislation reaches the Governor’s desk this session.
5. Police Reforms
After a tumultuous procedural debate, the Senate passed SB2820 – An Act to reform police standards and shift resources to build a more equitable, fair and just commonwealth that values Black lives and communities of color (30 Y/7 N). SB2820 includes the establishment of a Police Officers Standards and Accreditation Committee, amends qualified immunity to make police officers more open to civil lawsuits, restrictions on the use of force including choke holds, strengthens reporting and data collection, and prohibits no-knock warrants unless deemed necessary to protect law enforcement. While the House’s journey to a final bill was not as rocky, the vote to engross the bill, HB4886, was even closer (93 Y/66 N). The House bill alternatively sets up a Committee on Police Training and Certification, amends qualified immunity to make officers who have been decertified by this new commission eligible for civil lawsuits, restricts use of force including choke holds, and limits no-knock warrants to situations where an officers life is in danger and the officer attests no children or elders are present. The two pieces of legislation are now in a Conference Committee, which is made up of Representatives Cronin, Gonzalez and Whelan and Senators Brownsberger, Chang-Diaz and Tarr.
6. FY2021 State Budget
Early in the pandemic, expert economists testified before the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means and the Secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to share their revised revenue numbers for fiscal year 2021 (FY21) in light of the growing public health crisis. At that time, economists projected annual revenues to drop $6 billion from January estimates, a major hit to the state’s available balances for FY21. While the Legislature has this information, they are still awaiting further guidance from the federal government on potential assistance, which has delayed progressed in FY21 budget drafting. The Legislature and the Governor, however, worked together to pass a “1/12th” budget for July ($5.25 billion). In addition, the Legislature has proposed an interim budget of $16.53 billion, allocating funding to cover spending from August through October. The Legislature hope this spending will provide ample time for a clearer understanding of the state’s financial picture to produce a final budget for the remaining eight months of FY21.