Massachusetts Legislature's to-do list is long, but time growing short
BOSTON >> Push is coming to shove on Beacon Hill with fewer than 100 days remaining until formal legislative sessions end on July 31. The list of unfinished business is a lengthy one — from energy to charter schools to transgender rights — and with lawmakers running short on time, it remains to be seen how many bills will complete the journey to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's desk before adjournment.
Here at a glance is some of the key matters pending:
The nearly $40 billion budget for the July 1 fiscal year goes before the House next week with hundreds of amendments on tap. It would limit overall growth in state spending to just above 3 percent and impose no new taxes. Some lawmakers are likely to push for more spending in areas such as pre-kindergarten education and environmental protection. Fiscal watchdogs, meanwhile, say the state should move faster to replenish its reserves that were drained during the Great Recession.
Lawmakers recently voted to raise caps on solar net metering, which could jumpstart stalled solar projects around the state. Waiting in the wings is more wide-reaching energy legislation that could include incentives for long-term contracts with hydropower suppliers and offshore wind developers. Kinder Morgan's recent decision to halt work on a $3.3 billion natural gas pipeline into Massachusetts adds new urgency to the discussion about the state's energy future.
The contentious debate over charter school expansion appears increasingly unlikely to yield a compromise that would head off a November ballot question. A Senate-passed bill would allow modest growth in charter schools in underperforming school districts, but the measure was widely panned by charter school advocates, including Baker.
The Senate plans to debate a bill next month that would expand protections for transgender people in public accommodations. Democratic legislative leaders support the bill, but Baker's refusal to take a firm position on signing the measure if it reached his desk recently got him booed off a stage at an LGBT event. In a later statement, a Baker spokeswoman said the governor believes people should use the restroom they feel most comfortable using.
Legislation approved by the House would require background checks for drivers and establish other regulations for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. A Senate panel is currently reviewing the bill. Among potential areas of disagreement as the measure moves forward is a proposed 5-year ban on ride-hailing services operating at Logan International Airport or the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
A bill passed by the Senate earlier this year would make Massachusetts the latest U.S. state to prohibit all use of hand-held cellphones by motorists. There is no indication when or if the House will debate the hands-free requirement. The state already bans texting while driving.
Barring an unforeseen impasse, the Legislature appears on track to change the state's public records law, which has been partly blamed for Massachusetts receiving poor grades for government transparency. A House-Senate conference committee is currently writing a final version of the bill that would establish new timetables for answering public records requests and limit fees charged by agencies.
Debate is expected in the Senate next week on a bill that could make Massachusetts the second U.S. state to raise from 18 to 21 the minimum age statewide for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products. The legislation would also set new regulations for the sale of e-cigarettes.
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