Clarence Fanto: On stepping to plate, Legislature didn't always score this session

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LENOX — How do you spell what state lawmakers accomplished in the homestretch of their 574-day, 19-month formal session in the wee small hours of Wednesday? C-H-A-O-S.

Here's my personal scorecard of the strikeouts, foul balls, bunts, walks, base hits and even home runs.

Onward, distracted driving

A proposed ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving crashed and burned yet again, leaving Massachusetts the only Northeastern state without a handset ban.

The Senate passed it, Gov. Charlie Baker supports it, but the House whiffed, due to concerns by state Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and member of the House leadership, that police might racially profile violators by targeting minority motorists. As Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, put it: "It's taken them 10 years to not compromise on a traffic safety bill. Their job is to listen to constituents, and clearly they aren't." Supporters of the ban might try a ballot referendum in 2020, unless there's a breakthrough by then.

Strikeout

Health care fix fails

The House wanted insurers and large hospitals to funnel $330 million toward financially stressed community hospitals. Business and health care industry groups objected vigorously, citing the cost impact. The Senate had a different idea — make insurers cover at least 90 percent of medical service average prices to help the struggling hospitals. Result: No common ground.

Strikeout

School funding axed

The House and Senate were unable to agree on how to fix outdated school funding formulas after a report that lawmakers have been shortchanging the state's students by nearly $1 billion a year, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-D az, a Boston Democrat and lead negotiator, accused House leadership of having "killed the bill completely" and engaging in "double-standards ... to avoid doing what's right for kids." House negotiators said they were "disappointed."

Teachers, parents and supporters blasted the leadership team of House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Result: Nearly three years of work on Beacon Hill to fix a 25-year-old "foundation funding" formula went up in smoke. Losers: Schools in urban areas, low-income students and English language learners.

Strikeout (bases loaded)

Windfall squandered

The state collected $1.2 billion more than expected in tax and other revenue. Baker wanted $72 million used to bolster school security. Lawmakers apparently ran out of time to vote on this, so the money sits on the sidelines, possibly until next year.

Strikeout

Airbnb rentals up in the air

After several years of work, lawmakers approved a taxation plan for hosts renting out space for 30 days or fewer at a time, as well as a statewide registry of properties that bothered some privacy advocates. Baker sent the bill back with proposed revisions, extending the allowable short-term rental window to a cap of 90 days a year, excusing homeowners who rent 14 days or fewer per year from taxation and insurance requirements, and limiting public access to the online registry database.

House and Senate leaders could have endorsed the modified bill before the clock ran out at 1 a.m. Wednesday, but chose not to. Now, during informal sessions, a single lawmaker could roadblock any action.

So, legislators could vote unanimously to accept Baker's changes or reject them, sending the bill back to the governor. At that point, he would have 10 days to sign it, veto it or do nothing, which would effectively kill the legislation.

Foul ball

Immigration snafu

Three different proposals to either limit or step up local police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement were floated, and sank quickly.

Bunt

Cultural bonanza

Local community groups might see a bigger slice of the Mass Cultural Council's pie, now that state lawmakers have voted to override Baker's veto of the the organization's proposed budget. The result is a $2 million increase from $14 million, the level-funded allotment of the past three years.

Council grants help support 320 arts, humanities and science nonprofits statewide, including 19 local cultural councils in the Berkshires.

Double

Economic development deals

A bill approved at the last possible moment authorizes $1.2 billion in bonding over several years, with priorities to be set by Baker's team. Included: Limits on noncompete contracts used by employers to keep workers from jumping ship to a competitor or starting up a rival venture, subsidies for local infrastructure projects, local earmarks for individual lawmakers' pet projects and, best of all, a sales tax holiday this Aug. 11 and 12, and every year from now on.

Christmas in August.

Home run

Opioid attack

Lawmakers sent to the governor a bill expanding access to addiction treatment centers and availability of the overdose-reversal medication naloxone (Narcan) at pharmacies without a prescription. As state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said: "It's so critical we keep doing all we can to get ahead of this epidemic. I'm proud that there's a broad consensus on the need to do more."

Home run

Other hits, misses

It's only fair to acknowledge some base hits this year, including a "red flag" bill allowing courts to strip guns from people deemed dangerous by their family; free access to contraceptives for most women; a criminal justice bill eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences and, most significantly, the "grand bargain" that gradually increases the state hourly minimum wage to $15 and mandates paid medical and family leave — that's clearly a bases-loaded homer.

And light up the scoreboard for successful efforts by the Berkshires delegation, led by Hinds and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, with reps John Barrett III (former mayor for life of North Adams), Paul Mark and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, to get funding for Berkshires projects.

But then there's the $1.8 billion package vetoed by the governor that grants pay raises to legislative leaders, judges and other officials. The House and Senate overrode that veto, of course.

Now, the lawmakers are in a seventh-inning stretch that continues until January, when a new 19-month game begins.

As far as I'm concerned, solving the mysteries of Beacon Hill require the combined skills of Inspectors Clouseau (ha-ha), Maigret and Sherlock Holmes.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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