Recap and analysis of the week in state government
It could be one helluva July on Beacon Hill.
True to his pledge not to become a lame-duck governor in his final year in office, Gov. Charlie Baker this week lobbed two significant pieces of legislation into the fray for consideration before the Legislature more or less shuts down after July 31 for campaign season.
If you’re keeping track at home, the governor’s new health care bill and his transportation investment plan join a legislative could-do list that already includes the fiscal year 2023 state budget (that one’s really a must-do), a supplemental fiscal 2022 budget that includes loads of COVID response funding, the annual Chapter 90 bill to pay for local road projects and repairs, a Senate climate bill that could cover some of the same ground as the House-approved offshore wind bill, legislation to open up access to driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status in the country (already passed in the House), and more.
Senate leaders have suggested they’ll take up a child care bill this spring, and House leaders say they want to tackle legislation addressing the sharing of sexually explicit images. Oh, and lawmakers still need to put the finishing touches on a plan to improve oversight and accountability at two state-run veterans’ homes, and legislation that would enact major changes for this year’s elections.
House Speaker Ron Mariano also wants to see the Senate finally take up sports betting and act on the House’s bill to put new checks on some hospital expansions while Senate President Karen Spilka is eager for the House to consider bills passed by her chamber to expand access to mental health and lower prescription drug costs. And it’s been something of a custom for lawmakers to pass a massive economic development bill at the end of each session.
In other words, there’s a lot to do in the next four-plus months.
Baker this week added to the pile a health care bill that would force providers and insurers to boost spending on primary and behavioral health care by as much as $1.4 billion over the next three years, a proposal that mirrors one he made before the pandemic rearranged Beacon Hill’s priorities. Lawmakers have chipped away at some health care-related issues this session and seem prepared to take another run at more wide-reaching reforms. But whether they adopt some of Baker’s ideas or go their own route remains to be seen.
The Democrats who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate will probably be more receptive to the $9.7 billion transportation bond bill that the Republican governor unveiled Thursday. The Legislature could certainly change Baker’s bill to reflect its priorities but it’s unlikely that lawmakers will quibble with Baker’s aim to maximize the money Massachusetts could receive under the new federal infrastructure law.
“The way this works is the state authorizes, the state moves forward, the state spends, and the federal government reimburses,” Baker said in front of I-290 in Worcester. “It’s critical for us to get this legislation passed as quickly as we possibly can…”
Another of Baker’s proposals, one to provide $700 million worth of tax relief to residents, already appears dead in the water. Beacon Hill Democrats say they are interested in pursuing some kind of tax relief before they are all up for reelection this fall, but the most detailed plans so far have come from Republicans.
“I don’t have anything right off the top of my head, but we’ve been looking at these things even before the governor presented his tax package, so we are going to take a look at a number of different things,” Mariano said Monday, adding that the House is exploring “more broad-based” options than what Baker offered.
The next day, House and Senate Republicans filed a trio of bills meant to relieve pressure on drivers by offering tax credits to commuters, creating new electric vehicle rebates, and suspending the state’s gas tax for the next six months — an idea that has no support from legislative leaders or the governor.
“We cannot stand idle while day after day people are facing the economic pain of paying for fuel to get to work, school, and medical appointments,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester said.
While last week saw Massachusetts gas prices rise to a record high of $4.36 per gallon on average as of March 11, this week saw prices start to drop as demand fell and the price of oil came down, according to AAA. A gallon of gas in Massachusetts was averaging $4.29 as of Friday morning, down seven cents in seven days. A month ago, the average price of gas was about $3.54 a gallon.
“That is another thing that we are looking at: what can we do to continue to decrease our reliance on oil and gas and increase electric vehicles, electric public transportation, electric individual vehicles, so that people do not need to buy gas in the same way,” Spilka said this week.
Massachusetts has a long way to go when it comes to increasing electric vehicle take-up. The Bay State was already behind on EV adoption before the pandemic and now is even further behind the 1 million vehicle benchmark Baker administration officials have said will be necessary to hit the state’s 2030 emissions reduction commitment.
The 36,000 electric vehicles on Massachusetts roads right now represent 3.6 percent of the state’s goal. One thing holding many drivers back from shifting to an EV is the cost. Kelly Blue Book reported that the average transaction price for a new car topped $46,000 in October but that the average EV cost was above $56,000 before rebates. KBB said 51 percent of car shoppers surveyed said EVs were too expensive to seriously consider.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty pointed to the price of electric vehicles this week as he took aim at Democrats — specifically gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey — for suggesting that the answer to the pain of high gas prices is to buy an electric car.
“Most citizens can’t afford to buy an electric car this week,” Doughty said outside a Tesla dealership in Dedham. “Even though there are very nice cars like these Teslas behind me, we’re just not in a position to afford those.”
Whether they’re driving a spiffy new Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck or a gas-guzzling Cadillac Escalade, Bay State drivers have more company (or competition, depending on what type of driver you are) on the roads these days.
“A lot of that red is creeping back in,” Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said Wednesday while presenting color-coded traffic maps to the MassDOT board. “Not quite as bad as where we were back in 2019 pre-pandemic, but getting closer by the week.”
There was even a spot of traffic Monday as federal, state and local officials met in Mattapan to cheer the federal government’s designation of a 3.7-mile stretch of the Lower Neponset River as a Superfund site. The pols had to pause their remarks about how the Superfund label will advance cleanup efforts to allow a flock of cyclists to cross the bridge being used as the press conference backdrop.
“Next time through, we’ll be swimming,” one of the riders quipped as he walked his bike by the podium.