Statehouse recap: Legal weed and health care dispute

Gov. Charlie Baker signs the Marijuana Bill inside his office at the Massachusetts Statehouse on Friday.

BOSTON — Do not pass go, but do collect $200 million.

That was the message from Democrats on Beacon Hill to Gov. Charlie Baker this week, marking what amounts to the most significant, if not the first major policy dust-up between the Kumbaya Caucus of Three at the State House.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg threw a brush-back pitch when - in a mere matter of days after Baker signed the fiscal 2018 budget - they went along with Baker's request for a swift public hearing on his proposed MassHealth eligibility reforms.

THAT'S A WRAP: Rep. Mark Cusack and Sens. Pat Jehlen, Will Brownsberger, and Jason Lewis shared a laugh before the marijuana bill was signed into law Friday. With formal sessions wrapped up until after Labor Day, Senate President Rosenberg on Thursday afternoon told members they were free to leave and wished them "a very happy and healthy summer." [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]

But the court officers barely had time to lock the doors and shut the lights out in Gardner Auditorium when word trickled out that the Legislature would vote the next day to rebuff the governor and his call for Medicaid reforms to be packaged with new fees and fines on employers to pay for health insurance for the low-income and disabled.

The Democratic leadership decided that reform can wait, but the revenues can not. And so both branches voted overwhelmingly, and for the second time, to send Baker new employer assessments to pay for MassHealth without the administration and business community's desired cost saving measures.

"I'll take a look at it when it gets to my desk and then we'll make a decision and I'll be sure to let you know when we make that decision," Baker said Thursday after the dust had settled, knowing he has three choices.

Baker can sign the assessments and risk alienating the business community, veto the bill and force lawmakers to override, for which they have the votes, or let the assessments become law in protest without his signature after 10 days.

Option two would force DeLeo and Rosenberg to decided whether they must call members back from the August recess, which began Friday, to override or wait until after Labor Day in contradiction of their assertions this week that the assessments need to be implemented immediately if the state is to collect the money it is counting on for the fiscal 2018 budget.

The polite game of chicken unfolded as U.S. Senate Republicans tried to muster 50 votes to repeal and replace, repeal, or "skinny repeal" Obamacare. After overcoming the odds to proceed to a debate on health care, it seemed all week that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't care what bill he could pass, as long as he could pass something.

In the end, he couldn't. Sen. John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, dramatically slammed the door on repeal and replace efforts when he joined two other Republicans in the wee hours Friday morning voting against a repeal measure intended to move the Senate into negotiations with the House.

McCain said it was time for Republicans and Democrats to work together and listen to the country's governors about how best to fix the health care system, which should be music to the ears of governors like Baker.

The soap opera in Washington was not lost on state policymakers. While some Democrats tried to link Baker's MassHealth reforms to unpopular Republican health care positions in Congress, House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez worried about plunging into MassHealth reform at home knowing that the complete disruption of the marketplace "could be one Tweet away."

"This is not the end of our health care debate," Sanchez assured as the criticisms were expressed over Baker's plan to move 140,000 MassHealth enrollees onto subsidized commercial plans with higher out-of-pocket costs.

The Gentlelady from Ashland took her own turn in the spotlight at Tuesday's hearing when she was anything but gentle. Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka came ready to tango with with the administration's trio of secretaries sent to defend and advocate for Gov. Baker's plans to reform MassHealth.

Spilka made clear she believed the administration did not have "a monopoly on the ideas that are out there on health care," and asked panel after panel to submit their own recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the coming weeks and months.

"This is an ongoing issue and there are other ways to go about savings, rather than necessarily moving people off of MassHealth," Spilka said.

Building consensus for health care changes in Massachusetts, as in Washington, may be a difficult task, but the governor and legislative leaders were on the same page this week when it came time to finalize marijuana oversight and protections for pregnant workers.

Baker signed both bills upon his return from a political trip to Colorado, and in doing so helped cement the two biggest legislative achievements of the year outside of pay raises for public officials, which Baker opposed, and an annual state budget.

The fall agenda now includes health care cost savings to go along with criminal justice reform, and the Supreme Judicial Court gave Beacon Hill something else to think about.

Justices on the top court ruled Monday that Massachusetts lacked any legal standing for state or local police to honor a detainer request from Immigration and Customs Services (ICE) if they had no other criminal reason to hold the individual.

Conservative Andover Republican Rep. Jim Lyons immediately responded by filing legislation that would empower state police to enforce federal immigration law, which led the administration to let it be known that they, too, were working on slightly tamer legislation.

Baker's bill, according to aides, will likely focus on upholding the policy put in place in 2016 allowing state police to hold individuals on ICE detainers if they have prior convictions or pending charges for violent crimes like rape and murder.

Asked about his bill versus Lyons' bill, Baker said, "I like our bill," which could get filed as soon as next week.

With the traditional August recess starting a few days early, Secretary of State William Galvin helped Rosenberg by getting vote totals to the Governor's Council this week in time to certify Cindy Friedman's comfortable special election victory Tuesday just a day later.

Friedman, while her husband was circling the block looking for parking, took the oath of office to officially replace her former boss and late Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, bringing the upper chamber to 39 members and 13 women - tying an all-time high.

Rosenberg wanted to make Friedman official so she could vote on the final business to be taken up in the chamber until Labor Day, including an expansion of property tax relief options for active military members, the elderly and the disabled, and a rewrite of the English language learning program requirements.

The House and Senate also finalized a one-year extension of the state's simulcasting laws that will allow facilities like Suffolk Downs, Raynham Park and Plainridge Park Casino to continue accepting wagers and making profits off horse and dog races in other states.