Big issues loom as Legislature returns to Beacon Hill
BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers enter 2016 with plenty of unfinished business from the first year of their two-year legislative session. Look for discussion on issues ranging from opioid abuse to energy supplies to charter schools in the coming months on Beacon Hill, not to mention the annual debate over the state's nearly $40 billion budget.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker maintained, for the most part, chummy relations with Democratic legislative leaders during his first year in office. But will that atmosphere of cordiality begin to dissipate if key bills bog down over disagreements?
Here are just a few issues expected to garner attention from now until the close of the session July 31.
Baker often notes that the opioid addiction crisis costs the lives of roughly four people, on average, each day in Massachusetts. But Beacon Hill is far from united on the best set of approaches. Baker has proposed several steps including a three-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers and authorization for doctors to order involuntary drug treatment commitments of up to 72 hours.
The House, meanwhile, is expected to debate legislation soon that seeks a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions, and would require a full substance abuse evaluation within 24 hours for people who enter emergency rooms with overdose symptoms. A Senate-passed opioid abuse bill, meanwhile, includes mandatory screening of public school students for potential substance abuse.
It will likely fall to House and Senate negotiators to craft a final measure, possibly by the spring.
Massachusetts appears to be inching closer to banning motorists from talking on hand-held cellphones while driving. A bill that would require hands-free cellphone use has received a preliminary OK in the House, and the Senate is scheduled to debate a similar measure later in January. If such a law passes, Massachusetts — which already bans texting while driving — would join the neighboring states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York in prohibiting motorists from using hand-held cellphones except in emergencies.
While motorists are enjoying a recent plunge in gas prices, officials are quick to remind Bay State residents of some of the nation's highest overall energy costs, a disincentive for companies choosing whether to remain in Massachusetts or relocate there. Baker wants prompt action on energy legislation including his proposal aimed at increasing the flow of Canadian-generated hydropower into the state. Another key question is whether lawmakers can settle differences and cut a deal raising caps on the state's net metering program, which allows electric customers and municipalities to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit.
In recent years, agreement has eluded lawmakers on proposals to ease state caps on new charter schools — public schools that operate independently from local school districts. But charter school expansion enjoys strong support from Baker and many others, and backers have gathered signatures to place a question before voters next fall if the Legislature doesn't act. That could ramp up pressure on Beacon Hill to reach a compromise, though opposition to charter schools remains strong among teachers unions and critics who worry that charters siphon financial resources from traditional public schools.
Momentum appears to be growing for the first overhaul of the state's public records laws in more than four decades. The House approved a bill in October that requires state agencies and municipalities to answer public records requests promptly, while also creating a mechanism for records seekers to recoup legal fees if they successfully challenge the denial of a public records request in court. The Senate has tentatively scheduled a vote on public records reform for early February. The effort is backed by Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees record-keeping in Massachusetts.
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