Our Opinion: Again, Legislature runs out clock on itself
The 2018 Massachusetts legislative session ended in typical "hurry up and wait," fashion, in the words of one frustrated lawmaker. A number of good bills fell by the wayside, mostly two related to education and health care. Each carried with them hopes that long-term inequities would be addressed and rectified.
The health care reform bill would have taxed large hospitals and health insurers to provide additional funding to help assure stability for small community hospitals. Both the House and Senate supported such legislation and hashed out their own versions, but leadership decided they were too far apart to be reconciled. Accusations flew legislators from rural districts that Partners HealthCare, a Boston-based nonprofit hospital and physician network, and the Massachusetts Hospital Association, which traditionally sides with big hospitals, flexed their lobbying muscles with House members to make that body's version unacceptable to senators on the joint conference committee tasked with creating the final legislation. Those interest groups were the big winners in the bill's failure; the losers were the residents who rely on community hospitals not only for medical service by as a jobs-providing economic engine.
The education reform bill was an attempt to fix systemic inequities that have become apparent in the 25 years since the enactment of the 1993 education reform law. Since that time, the education landscape has changed, the gap between the relative wealth of school districts has grown and an influx of immigrants has created a pressing need for more funding to educate the newcomers. The budget formula, according to a 2015 budget review commission report, was found to underestimate the costs of statewide education by as much as $1 billion to $2 billion. The commission found shortcomings in the categories of special education, health benefits for teachers and staff, teaching of low-income students and English language learners. More specific to the Berkshires, the bill also would have increased funding to raise the budget contribution to every school district, but it would have prioritized the poorest 20 percent of districts.
Controversy centered on the low-income and English learners issues. The Senate favored immediate additional funding for all four categories, while the House preferred to do a research study on costs of such specialized instruction before expending state funds. These relatively minor disagreements that could have been dealt with weeks ago should not have brought down the whole package, but time ran out on the legislative calendar and that is what happened.
There is no excuse for a full-time Legislature to procrastinate through every session before rushing to the finish line, hastily pasting together bills and allowing others to drop off the map. The fault lies primarily with leadership, most specifically House Speaker-for-life Robert DeLeo — and residents outside their districts never to get to vote for or against them.
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