The Gentleman from Amherst: Budgets Settled, a Full Fall Awaits Rosenberg’s Senate…
This post is the first in a two-part series on Stanley Rosenberg, the first leader of a Massachusetts legislative chamber from the 413 in four decades.
BOSTON—With its Fall session underway the Massachusetts legislature is shifting into a higher gear after a spring focused on the budget. There was quite a bit of policy in that budget, but as Beacon Hill settles into a new normal with a Republican governor, each house of the legislature is starting to look at meatier, standalone topics.
Senators in particular have been itching for an aggressive Fall session. Already, the body has passed legislation to tackle the opiate crisis and to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to automobiles.
“What do we are to do here to make sure we can keep advancing reasonable policy that are solidly Democratic and not so far left that we fall off the surfboard?” Rosenberg said in an interview last month, describing the delicate balance needed to further progressive policy with a Republican governor and a sometimes skittish House.
Building off of the Commonwealth Conversations earlier this year and combined with the freer hand Rosenberg has given committee chairs, senators have a long wish list.
“The leadership is open to a broader agenda and input from the chairs of the different committees,” Senator Michael Moore of Millbury said.
For example, Moore Higher Education Committee co-chair, has been spearheading a bill to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
Pittsfield Senator Benjamin Downing, who co-chairs the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, assured energy, a perennial issue in Massachusetts with its relatively high electric and fuel costs, would receive a lot of attention, “That we’ll spend a significant amount of time on.”
The Berkshire County senator’s attention is split between short and long-term proposals. Raising the net-metering cap is among the former. The cap limits how much customers can save on their electric bills by generating their own energy, such as solar. Thus, solar and other renewable growth is hampered.
“We are essentially leaving projects on the table,” Downing said. Longer-term he said the legislature is awaiting a report on gas capacity and is considering the governor’s hydropower push.
While the senate’s budget was completed in the spring and the conference spending document came in July, the work of the Senate Ways & Means Committees is far from over. Its chair, Ashland Senator Karen Spilka, predicted a busy Fall for her committee including tweaks to the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.
“We work on budget stuff all year round,” she said. “We review any bill has fiscal impact,” and many do.
Future battles like those over public records and transgender public accommodation protection are moving forward, but those already fought, like on taxes, remain ambiguous.
Speaking to WMassP&I in his State House office, Rosenberg said the Reagan Revolution left the impression, “You could cut taxes and increase services if only we got rid of waste, fraud and abuse.” Massachusetts itself cut taxes 40 plus times by Rosenberg’s count, reducing revenue by $3.4 billion since the 1980’s. However, lawmakers did make the tax code more progressive along the way.
As part of its budget this year, the senate voted 29-11, a veto-proof majority, to freeze the income tax rate at 5.15% to pay for a larger earned income tax credit. Individual taxpayers would feel almost nothing, but both the House and the governor blanched, citing an old voter referendum to lower the rate to 5%.
The EITC was increased, but financed through a mechanism outside the tax code.
Public skepticism around taxes and constitutional prohibitions graduated income taxes have led some to the ballot box. They are pushing for a constitutional amendment to increase taxes on millionaires, which could raise $1.5 billion for transportation and education investments.
“It never has moved in the last 15 years or so,” Rosenberg said. Noting he had long been sponsored such amendments, he said rising inequality has bolstered current efforts. As Senate President, Rosenberg will preside over joint legislative sessions for amendments.
Another battle in the budget was over suspending the Pacheco Law, which requires proof of savings before governmental functions can be privatized. Baker won a three-year suspension for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, after prolonged Senate resistance.
Despite organized labor condemnation—labor claims privatization could lead to job cuts and poorer, less accountable service—Rosenberg noted landguage that has largely been “out of sight, out of mind.”
Should any MBTA functions be privatized, Rosenberg said, “for the first time they are going to have to report what they saved and how they saved it.” Under Pacheco generally, the privatizing entity can merely argue a savings—through an administrative process—but never has to prove later the money was actually saved.
Elsewhere, the House, Senate and governor have been assembling a stronger public records law. A bill had been hurdling toward passage the Massachusetts Municipal Association objected to the potential costs to cities and towns.
Though reviewing where localities’ concerns are legitimate, Rosenberg said the Senate is committed to legislation that brings state law in line with national practice.
“If we are going to give people access to public information and public documents, it has to be real and meaningful,” not “window dressing,” Rosenberg insisted.
Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot was also optimistic about the bill. “We’re still aiming high,” she said, unperturbed by the slower pace the bill has taken.
“I think in terms of the public statements coming out of the senate president’s office have been very supportive,” she added.
The Senate’s embrace of the reforms fits with the transparency and outreach Rosenberg has promised, but Wilmot was confident of both chambers’ support. She said House Speaker Robert DeLeo is on board, but has simply backed it with less fanfare.
That’s just a sampling of what the Senate hopes to accomplish, but the session formally ends in only ten months. While it would be an overstatement to say the legislature has not been productive so far this term so far, there is no denying that time can get away from even the most ambitious of legislators.