BOSTON — House Speaker Robert DeLeo has conceded that the House may be willing to move off its position that retail marijuana sales be taxed at 28 percent, and the Democratic leader remains hopeful that the panel negotiating a compromise pot bill will be able to strike a deal by Friday.
DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg appeared jointly on WGBH's "Greater Boston" show Tuesday night with host Jim Braude, who pressed the two men on the major difference between the House and Senate bill reworking the legal marijuana ballot law.
The House bill calls for increasing the maximum 12 percent tax rate on pot sales in current law to a mandatory 28 percent, while the Senate voted to leave the tax structure unchanged.
"They'll negotiate. They'll figure it out. They're good people," Rosenberg said of the six-member conference committee led by Sen. Patricia Jehlen and House Majority Leader Ron Mariano. Jehlen's biggest concern, according to Rosenberg, is setting a tax rate so high that it would "seed the black market."
Asked whether the House and Senate meet in the middle on a tax rate, DeLeo said, "I suppose there could be some negotiation."
The conference committee met for the first time on Monday, and is working under a self-imposed Friday deadline to get a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk in order to give the new Cannabis Control Commission a full year to set up and begin licensing retail pot shops.
"I found they are having fruitful conversations, so to speak, so I am hopeful," DeLeo said.
Throughout the 12-minute segment, DeLeo and Rosenberg emphasized their personal affection for one another and ability to work together, despite the obvious philosophical policy differences between the two leaders and branches they represent.
Those differences have at times over the past two-plus years made it difficult to align agendas between the House and Senate and make progress on issues important to voters, including education funding.
As they work to reach a quick agreement over marijuana, another major policy difference is whether voters or elected officials in a city or town should be able to decide whether to ban retail marijuana sales.
DeLeo said the House voted to change the ballot law to give the power to elected officials because it would be less expensive and easy to schedule than a townwide referendum. "I think that in terms of getting a quicker decision and a less expensive decision, our plan would be able to work," he said.
Rosenberg countered that 39 communities have already taken votes to ban retail sales, and 120 communities are in the process of amending their zoning bylaws. "It's working," Rosenberg said of the ballot question method.
However when given the opportunity to say the House bill was stripping rights from voters, Rosenberg demurred: "I think we're heading in the right path by trying to keep it with the voters," he said.
The two Statehouse leaders also discussed the proposed 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million that will likely be decided by voters next November and the governor's approach to taxes, but largely passed up the opportunity to criticize Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
DeLeo justified the governor's conflicting positions on raising broad-based taxes versus taxing new industries like Airbnb and marijuana, and said the governor's proposed assessment on employers to pay for MassHealth was driven by pressure put on the state budget by health care costs.
Asked whether Baker was striking the "right chord" in his opposition to policies emanating from Washington that may hurt Massachusetts, Rosenberg said, "I'm certainly glad he's speaking out on the health care piece because it's billions and billions of dollars that we can't afford to lose here in Massachusetts."
Rosenberg also credited Baker with making a "clear statement" on President Donald Trump's policies toward immigration. "We just have to make sure our state policy aligns with those views," Rosenberg said.
True to their past statements, DeLeo said it was "much too premature" to be talking about whether the Winthrop Democrat could see himself supporting Baker's re-election bid in 2018, while Rosenberg made clear he will support the eventual Democratic nominee.
"I enjoy working with the governor, but I'm a lifelong Democrat and I plan on supporting the Democratic nominee," Rosenberg said.