House and Senate GOP leaders named legalization of sports betting and unlocking the voter-approved tax deduction for charitable giving among their top priorities heading into the second year of the legislative session.
In a joint interview, House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr also identified legislation they would be comfortable passing in the quiet holiday season informal sessions, talked about how they work as the leaders of relatively small bands of Republican lawmakers, and expressed apprehension about a state of "disrepair" and division within the MassGOP.
Sports betting legislation has stalled out in the Senate after the House passed a bipartisan bill (H 3993) in July with only three Democrats opposed. Jones said constituents quiz him about the status of sports gaming legislation at "literally any event" he attends in his district.
"Whether or not you are a fan of gaming, or even of sports gaming, the fact is that we are leaving $30-50 million on the table," Tarr said, "watching it — the activities — be conducted in other states that we could be getting the benefit of here."
Jones said the monetary estimate would be higher if one took into account the bettors' visits to restaurants, bars, and shops while across the border in a state that allows sports gaming.
"I think that is something that needs to be kind of amplified a little bit in the discussion, as we are more of an island unto ourselves. I shudder to think, the millions of dollars we probably lost just for the fact the Red Sox went into the playoffs and weren't predicted to do so," Jones said.
Tarr pointed to differing positions between lawmakers on questions like numbers of licenses or "skins," and whether to include collegiate sports in the legalized betting arena. But the holdup could also be chalked up to House-Senate relations.
"It seems to me that there has been some interplay between the branches, and that may be holding it up," Tarr said.
He added that even if there are "very substantial" differences in a Senate version, that could be sorted out in conference committee.
If it were up to Jones, lawmakers would take an open-book approach and hash out their differences on the floor.
"I guess I'm a little bit more of a, well you know what, put a bill on the floor, let the membership decide whether they want that in or they want it out, and then if people don't like the final bill that's crafted through that sausage-making process then they can vote it down," Jones said. "But I think the way we're not moving forward now, which is simply not to bring it up, isn't serving — again, I'm asked that, literally any event I go to in the community. People say what's going on, where is it at?"
The charitable giving tax deduction, a priority of Gov. Charlie Baker's, is likewise a "very high priority" for the caucuses, Tarr said, adding that his trio of Republican senators will continue to file measures to make the deduction available again after a 20-year hiatus. Jones said reinstating the deduction is important to ensure "public confidence" in Beacon Hill.
Taxpayers were only able to utilize the 5 percent deduction for one year after voters approved it at the ballot box in 2000. The Legislature suspended the tax break when the state ran into fiscal troubles in 2002.
"We just spent a lot of time debating an ARPA bill, and we spend time on other bills, where we're trying to support nonprofit organizations that have been critical in helping us to survive the pandemic," Tarr said. "Well, one way of helping them is to spend taxpayer dollars. Another way of doing it is to reward individuals who spend their own money on those things."
The Senate minority leader added that his caucus may also push for an expanded sales tax holiday in the upcoming year.
Both lawmakers also urged action on a simple but prominent procedural matter -- the setting of next year's primary election date.
"We've had both late August dates, we've had September dates. And I know there's always a discussion about, 'Well, we should move it a lot earlier, and later.' But the reality is that at some point we have to set a date, and we're rapidly approaching that because we're supposed to have papers available for candidates who want to run, after the first of the year," Jones said.
The lack of legislative action on a primary date is a "problem," Secretary William Galvin told the News Service recently, and the date needs to respect the need to deliver ballots overseas.
"The Legislature has to do something and they haven't done it, but maybe they'll come back and do something, I don't know," said Galvin, the state's elections overseer. "I've sent language to them, I talked to them before they left, I'm hopeful it will be done. But obviously we can't put it in the calendar yet, we can't tell everyone when it is, I can't print nomination papers because I can't put the date of the primary on there."
'Not oppositional completely'
Still ticking off their legislative priorities, Tarr and Jones
"It's also important to understand that we are not oppositional completely to the majority," said Tarr, who listed the Senate's mental health care bill — a top priority of President Karen Spilka's — as "very high on our agenda" in the Senate Republican Caucus.
"Yeah, and I would think there'd be a great deal of receptivity over here to that," Jones said of House GOP reaction to the mental health bill. The House minority leader was optimistic that an accord could be reached on Speaker Ronald Mariano's determination-of-need hospital expansion legislation if the branches were to trade health care bills.
"I'm going to guess — again, we were talking about how things are tied together — whether the bill we put out on the determination of need would be something that maybe would be looked at favorably in the Senate," Jones added. "Again, each may do their slightly different version, but I think if we get them to conference committee then they're probably fairly easily reconciled by the end of the session."
Prompted to critique the first year of the legislative session, both leaders focused on the slow passage of the $4 billion bill allocating around half of the state's American Rescue Plan Act funds, with Jones calling it "sadly entirely predictable" that the branches missed their own Nov. 17 target to enact the package.
Tarr said it is important to push the remaining $2.3 billion in ARPA monies quickly out the door, and that he would hope to see work on another ARPA bill "very soon in the new year." Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues, speaking on the Senate floor this month, would not commit to any timeline for the next "bite" at the ARPA apple.
Whenever that next bite comes, Jones said "first and foremost" it should include another infusion into the unemployment insurance trust fund, and could also be tailored to augment funding that flows to Massachusetts from the federal infrastructure bills.
Tarr said he is interested in developing a new program to help with construction of municipal facilities like DPW buildings, police stations, and fire stations, similar to existing state programs that aid in constructing local schools and libraries.
While Republicans expressed dismay at the fact the $4 billion ARPA bill was enacted in an informal session, the caucus leaders said there is certain "low-hanging fruit" they are comfortable plucking in an informal in the midst of Christmas and New Year's.
One of those is Nero's Bill (S 2573), passed Nov. 10 in the Senate, which would allow emergency medical personnel to treat and transport police K-9 dogs.
"Again, at the risk of creating upheaval about doing something in an informal session, we've expressed our willingness to get it done," Jones said of Nero's Bill, "and if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes."
Tarr said Nero's Bill has evolved to address previous concerns, and he would support advancement "even in an informal session."
Told of their interest in moving the K-9 safety measure in an informal session, Speaker Ronald Mariano said Wednesday that Republican leaders have not approached him with such a proposal.
Only noncontroversial matters can advance in informal sessions until the Legislature gavels into its second annual session on Jan. 5. "I don't imagine this would be controversial," Mariano said of Nero's Bill, "but we don't know."
Jones also identified a bill dealing with school registration and professional licensure of military family members as one where "consensus should be developed." And Tarr wants to see action on the so-called hen welfare bill that aims to avert a disruption or price spike in the state's egg supply, which could come when a 2016 ballot law takes effect on New Year's Day.
State of 'disrepair'
The ranks of the House GOP shrank in September to 29 representatives, or around 18 percent of House seats, with the resignation of Assistant Minority Leader Brad Hill to take a job on the state Gaming Commission. A Republican candidate, Robert Snow, lost to Democrat Jamie Belsito in last week's special election to fill the seat.
According to Ipswich Local News, it's the first time since 1858 that Ipswich will not be represented by a Republican in the House.
"Our state senator, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, can't even muster a foursome for bridge," wrote a columnist on the same local news site. The Senate minority caucus shrank to three last year with Democrat John Cronin's defeat of Republican Sen. Dean Tran.
The state party apparatus has been running to the right of its representatives on Beacon Hill, and Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons even jabbed at moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in a press release after Baker announced his planned retirement from the corner office last week, writing that Baker was "shaken by President Trump's endorsement of another Republican candidate in Geoff Diehl."
Lyons wrote of his goal to "rebuild" the party by "working with President Trump," a divisive figure in the state where he garnered just shy of one-third of the votes in 2020. The party's legislative leaders see the current party strategy as a narrowing of their traditional "big tent" approach that holds back how effective they can be inside the State House.
"It just seems like we have drifted away from suggesting that we are a big enough party, and inclusive enough party, to welcome folks from different perspectives but who share a set of core values and beliefs," Tarr said. "So it seems to me that we've drifted and we need to get back to that, and I hope that Chair Lyons will work on that very, very hard, because without that kind of leadership it's difficult to have the kind of numbers registration-wise that we do and not be doing something to change it."
When 29 out of 30 Republican House members in June called for Lyons' resignation if he did not intervene in a situation involving a homophobic email sent by a state committee member, the chairman wrote in a campaign email that his own party's elected officials had "bowed to the woke mob." The 29 representatives, Lyons wrote, would "sooner turn their backs on the bedrock American principles of free speech, free expression, and religious liberty, so long as it meant they could appease the Democrats controlling the state Legislature."
Lyons, who served under and clashed with Jones during his four terms in the House, took a swipe at the leader in a July press release knocking the extension of temporary voting reforms during an informal session.
"Rather than make the Democrats come in and actually have to vote on this legislation, Representative Jones, as he has done time and time again, stood by and did nothing. The GOP has to stand up and be an effective opposition party," Lyons wrote.
Jones, whose caucus has dropped by six members in the last four years, said this week: "I think that if you want to evaluate a party and a success, and sort of the metrics of success, it's hard-pressed for me as somebody who's been involved in politics for a while, to see how we're meeting whatever metrics of success most outside observers would ascribe to a political party, whether it's candidate recruitment, fundraising, support, winning, so forth and so on. Other people may have a different vision."
"Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction," Tarr added. "And I think if we focus too much on the things that divide us, we not only diminish our numbers, but we diminish our role in state government. And ultimately that's what we need to have, is an effective role in state government."
Jones assessed the state of the party as "probably one of some disrepair. And we probably need an ARPA bill for ourselves, so to speak."
'Meat and potatoes'
For their part, the leaders said they sometimes scout out new candidates. And while Lyons issues press releases on hot-button topics like abortion or critical race theory, Jones said he works with incumbent Republicans on less headline-grabbing issues to help them show their constituents they can effectively advocate for local priorities.
"Again, we all like to cover things that are oppositional and adversarial. But a lot of the things that we work on aren't necessarily Republican and Democrat," Jones said. "They may be rural versus urban versus suburban. They may be regional. They may be certain types of niches in the economy. That may not make them worthy of front page of the State House News or the Boston Globe, but in terms of the meat and potatoes back in the district where people are concerned about, I think they don't want us to become Washington. They still want to see common sense results achieved, even if that's not as sexy and glamorous as what goes on in the Congress right now."
The leaders, who have more than 50 combined years of experience on Beacon Hill, expect more dominoes to fall in the wake of Baker's and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito's decision to retire from the corner office.
"Now that they are not choosing to seek reelection, I think a lot of folks all across the state are thinking about their chance to be governor and I think we'll see more get into the race," Tarr said.
Both said they are running for reelection next year to their current seats. Jones said he is happy representing his hometown of North Reading and has no interest in a statewide run, but Tarr wouldn't rule out a future campaign for higher office.
"I'm focused on what I'm doing," Tarr said. "I enjoy doing it and I think it's very impactful in the process of Beacon Hill. So that's where my mindset is, and my focus right now. But I also learned a long time ago that in politics, you should never say never. So I'll leave you with that thought, that I'm focused on what I'm doing."
Both lawmakers were first elected to their legislative seats in the mid-1990s. Jones has led the House Republican Caucus since 2002, and Tarr was first elected Senate minority leader in 2011.