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February 8, 2024

Fate of key bills determined on day of biennial legislative deadline

Photo | Courtesy of Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts State House

Legislative committees effectively spiked proposals to legalize teacher strikes, revive happy hour drink promotions, and give cities and towns more authority over their liquor licenses, while bills embracing medical aid in dying and legal drug consumption sites moved forward in the pipeline.

The biennial legislative deadline known around Beacon Hill as Joint Rule 10 day arrived Wednesday, giving activists and lobbyists who have spent the past 13 months pushing for and against bills a limited glimpse at what remains in play heading into the final months of the term.

Its namesake rule, codified in the package that governs House-Senate operations, calls for joint committees with subject-matter expertise to decide whether bills should move forward in the process or be tagged with "adverse" reports or sent to dead-end studies by the first Wednesday in each even-year February.

Given the penchant House and Senate Democrats have for procrastination, the deadline is more of a suggestion than a rule. Bills that win favorable reports often still sputter out short of passage, and many will remain in an uncertain position thanks to the typical flood of extension orders that lawmakers approve to give themselves more time.

Those extension orders don't always signal a lack of support, either. Last session, the Transportation Committee punted its Joint Rule 10 day decision on a bill allowing Bay Staters without legal immigration status to acquire driver's licenses. The Legislature embraced the proposal a few months later, and it became one of the term's signature accomplishments.

With that context in mind, let's take a look at how 10 of the most hotly debated bills this term fared.

Lifting state caps on liquor licenses: Study orders

Cities and towns appear unlikely to secure the changes they've been seeking to the existing liquor licensing system, which requires municipal leaders to petition the Legislature for additional permits above existing quotas, after the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee shipped two bills giving communities more authority (H 296, H 367) to study orders. It appeared for a brief stretch that the primary vehicle of debate would come from the governor herself: Gov. Maura Healey told the Mass. Municipal Association's annual meeting her local empowerment bill would seek to give communities more control over how many licenses they issued, but just a few days later, she opted against putting that measure in her legislation. Healey's office said she still supports the underlying idea but wanted more time to iron out the specific language. Senate President Karen Spilka also lined up behind the proposal, but House Democrats have voiced skepticism.

Authorize overdose prevention centers: Favorable report

The idea of overdose prevention centers, sometimes known as supervised consumption sites or safe injection sites, suggests that providing a place where people can use drugs under the watch of medical professionals will prevent overdoses from quickly turning fatal, especially at a time when powerful substances like fentanyl are increasingly common in the supply. But legal questions hang over the topic, and House and Senate Democrats have long hesitated to embrace the proposal that former U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling threatened would draw federal prosecution. The Department of Public Health under Healey has firmly embraced overdose prevention centers as a tool to help stem the tide of overdose deaths, and the Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery Committee stamped its approval on the latest legislative proposals (H 1981 / S 1242) that would allow cities and towns to open the sites.

Revive happy hour in willing communities: Study order

Four decades after the Legislature banned happy hour, there appears to be no momentum toward lifting the statewide prohibition on discounted alcoholic beverage sales at bars and restaurants. The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee sent a bill (S 157) authorizing local-option happy hours to a study, likely spelling its doom for the 2023-2024 term despite sponsor Sen. Julian Cyr's pitch that the measure could "help us kind of get our groove back." In 2022, the Senate moved as part of its economic development bill to create a similar happy hour option in cities and towns that want it, but the measure did not survive negotiations with the House. Supporters view it as a way to give consumers and small businesses a lift, but opponents point to one of the reasons for the ban: patrons who drive drunk after leaving bars and restaurants.

Legalize medical aid in dying: Favorable report

For the third straight lawmaking term, the Public Health Committee gave a favorable recommendation to a controversial bill (H 2246 / S 1331) that would allow terminally ill patients to request and receive medication to end their lives. Supporters might feel optimistic about the development, but recent history suggests winning one committee's support is not enough: the Health Care Financing Committee declined to advance the bill in the past two sessions, and legislative leaders for years have opted against pursuing a vote in either chamber on a medical aid in dying proposal. Voters narrowly rejected a ballot question in 2012 that would have allowed physicians to prescribe life-ending medication, and the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2022 that aid in dying is not protected by the Massachusetts Constitution.

CHERISH Act: Deadline extended until March 1

The Higher Education Committee decided it needs at least another three weeks to figure out where it stands on a pricey higher education funding overhaul that would significantly change how Bay Staters pay to attend public colleges and universities. An extension order the panel filed gives it until March 1 to report on the bill supporters dub the CHERISH Act (H 1260 / S 816), which aims to help students attend public higher education in Massachusetts without incurring student debt and proposes significant new investments in campuses. One analysis pegged the cost of the changes at about $790 million and suggested lawmakers could roll it out over multiple years. It's unclear how much new information the committee will get by March 1.

Common Start: Favorable report sent to Senate Ways and Means

After both Healey and Spilka have made it clear that making child care more affordable is among their top priorities, the Education Committee gave its stamp of approval to the so-called "Common Start" bill (S 301 / H 489). The legislation would largely subsidize expensive early childhood education for lower-income families, leading to huge increases in the percentage of young kids in such programs by reducing the cost burden for families. It also seeks to invest in the industry to keep teachers in the field -- and would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding every year. The bill is similar to legislation passed by the Senate in 2022,  according to a spokesperson for Spilka, who also said the Education Committee report includes minor language changes from the underlying bill, but nothing that substantially changes the legislation's goals. While popular, the bill's odds of advancing are running into affordability concerns since state tax collections are in a months-long rut.

Legalizing teacher strikes: Study order

Public school educators are unlikely to win legal authority to hit the picket lines this legislative session -- though, in recent years, the fact that their strikes are illegal hasn't stopped a number of unions. Bills (H 1845 / S 1217) that the Labor and Workforce Development Committee sent to a study order would have allowed public employees to strike after six months of unsuccessful negotiations with their employers. The legislation, a priority of the Massachusetts Teachers Association that's previously been sent to study, does not apply to public safety employees. Though striking is currently illegal under state law, a wave of teacher strikes have unfolded in recent years in Woburn, Brookline, Malden, Haverhill, and most recently in Newton, where kids were out of schools for two weeks with fines as the only legal consequence.

Rent control and tenant protections: Deadline extended until April 18

Top House and Senate Democrats have long been cool to efforts to revive rent control, which voters banned statewide via a 1994 ballot question, even as others like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu continue to advocate for the tool as one of several that should be deployed to navigate a housing affordability crisis. This time around, lawmakers are moving to give themselves more time: the Housing Committee filed an extension order that would punt the deadline for several relevant bills -- including measures that would allow municipalities to ban landlords from rent increases over a certain percentage each year (H 1304) and Boston's home-rule petition seeking state permission to once again implement rent control in the city (H 3744)  -- until April 18.

Healthy Youth Act: Favorable report

The so-called Healthy Youth Act to update the state's sex education guidelines was given a favorable report by the Education Committee, and not for the first time. Rep. Jim O'Day has filed the bill for the last 10 years and the Senate has voted to remodel the education frameworks four times, but House Democrats have never taken it up. The bill (H 544 / S 268) would create guidelines for districts that opt into teaching sex education to go over human anatomy; how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy; effective use of contraceptives; how to safely discuss sexual activity in a relationship; skills to identify and prevent sexual violence and relationship violence; and age-appropriate and affirming education on gender identity and sexual orientation. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education also updated its sexual health education standards last year.

Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction: Extended until April 30

A pair of bills (H 1710 / S 942) that would gradually raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds over a five-year period suddenly gained new prominence last month when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that life sentences without parole for offenders of those ages are unconstitutional. The 4-3 opinion from the state's highest court sparked off new debate over how lawmakers should respond, and supporters of the decision pointed back to the legislation that also has support from Attorney General Andrea Campbell. The House on Monday approved an extension order pushing the deadline for the bills until the end of April. The bill has drawn an advocacy push from the Boston Celtics.

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