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November 28, 2023

State lawmakers return for another day of meetings as budget debate lingers on

Photo | Courtesy The Massachusetts State House

Beacon Hill Democrats returning from Thanksgiving weekend failed to advance a supplemental budget bill Monday, again punting potential action until later in the week.

Lawmakers did deviate from their plans for the week to meet only on Monday and Thursday, adding a Wednesday session.

It's been 12 days since Democrats failed to reach a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill before the end of the formal lawmaking season for the year. Branch leaders are working off a proposal Gov. Maura Healey filed in September.

When Minority Leader Bruce Tarr asked Monday whether the conference committee appointed to negotiate a deal had met yet, Sen. Pat Jehlen – who was presiding over the Senate session said – "neither the chair nor the clerk have been notified of any meetings."

"Given all of the important things that are contained as subject matter in the two versions of the supplemental budget that now pends before the conference committee, it is unfortunate that we are here, past the deadline for conducting formal sessions, and we do not know if the conference committee has met," Tarr said.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues told the News Service last week that "we'll be working on [negotiations] all weekend." Rodrigues and his counterpart in the House, Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, have in the past negotiated important bills via phone and email.

Sen. Patrick O'Connor, one of two Republicans on the conference committee, indicated the whole six-member group had not held a meeting but said that "Aaron and Mike have been in very in-depth conversations," referring to lead negotiators Michlewitz and Rodrigues.

"And we've been kept updated as far as how those conversations are progressing," O'Connor told the News Service, adding that "sometimes it is a formality" to hold sitdown conference meetings.

The Weymouth Republican voiced full confidence in the top Democrat budgetwriters, saying they "are trying to get it all out, rather than just piecemeal it, and I know that they're working really hard to get it done."

"I have faith in Mike, I have faith in Aaron, to get this done and to get it delivered and to make sure that our public service employees get raises, our communities who experienced disasters get relief, and that we continue to do as much as we possibly can to address this migrant crisis while we wait on real concrete plans as far as what's going to come in the future," O'Connor said.

If talks on a fiscal 2023 closeout budget don't wrap up this week, they will blend in with the start of fiscal 2025 debate on Monday.

Rep. Paul Donato of Medford, who presided at Monday's House session, said he didn't know what was on Wednesday's agenda and referred the News Service to Speaker Ronald Mariano's office. A spokesperson for the Quincy Democrat could not offer specific details.

Held up in the $2.8 billion spending bill required to close the books of fiscal 2023 is $250 million for the state's emergency assistance shelter system and more than $300 million to fund raises for thousands of public employees.

Donato told the News Service he's heard from constituents who are state workers and "very concerned" that they've yet to receive their collectively-bargained raises.

"They've been waiting since March, and there's further negotiations in January," Donato said. "And they're hoping that the Legislature can come to a conclusion rapidly so that they can get their money, maybe in time for the Christmas holidays."

Meanwhile, the state's emergency shelter system has a waitlist of more than 100 families as colder weather arrives.

Within the $250 million requested by Gov. Maura Healey, House Democrats want to carve out $50 million for overflow shelter sites and force the Healey administration to revoke its 7,500-family capacity if officials fail to open those extra spaces. The Senate wants to send the same $250 million toward the shelter crisis without specifics on how to spend that money. With Healey's family cap already hit, the prolonged talks are effectively putting the House plans to expedite overflow shelters on ice.   

"Many families who've been approved for emergency assistance shelter are still left without shelter services right now," said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, who supports the House's handling of overflow sites in its version of the supplemental budget and believes there is room to compromise with the Senate. "We're concerned that right now and over the long weekend, and in the days and weeks ahead, it's likely that families will be left out in the cold."

Differences on shelter management policy are among the areas where the branches need to compromise, though Tarr pointed out it's not possible to to know the completely list of points of controversy between the branches. 

The minority leader asked Jehlen for confirmation that one of the Legislature's rules (Joint Rule 11A) require that a report outlining points of disagreement be submitted at the time that a conference committee is created.

After conferring with the Senate clerk, Jehlen said Tarr was correct. But, she added, "in practice, in my knowledge, in the knowledge of the chair and of the clerk and of others in the room, this has never happened."

She said she was not aware of such a report from the House clerk for this conference committee.

O'Connor, asked whether he had been handed an 11A-style report at the outset of this conference process, said he has "had numerous conversations with the chair about the differences" between the House and Senate texts.

"I think that the differences are pretty clear," O'Connor said.

Tarr argued that an 11A report could help conferees to potentially move the non-controversial sections of the bill forward.

He and Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton both implored leadership to "report in part" the sections of the supplemental budget that both representatives and senators agreed on, including the public workers' raises.

"I know that there are legitimate areas of disagreement in other areas of the document that people may have some concerns about, and there is an opportunity to continue to have that dialogue separate and apart from the issues that are in agreement, so I would just urge that we separate those issues, so that we can send a message loud and clear for the hardworking members of our workforce," Pacheco said during Monday's session.

He continued, "Without action we send an unintentional message to those very workers that we don't care."

Pacheco said he sent and signed onto letters to the conferees urging them to separate out the controversial spending and move forward with the sections of the bill everyone agreed on. Republicans have also sent letters to negotiators saying that "substantially identical" line items in the bills should be moved forward, and union contract funding should be reported out "at the very least."

Tarr, who voted against the Senate's supplemental budget, again urged this course of action on the Senate floor on Monday.

He added that holding up the bill for the sections where there is disagreement "is also risking the fact that these items may not get approved."

Republicans have indicated that they may be willing to stop the passage of a spending bill that sends money to the emergency assistance shelters without certain policy changes. Tarr seemed to suggest Monday that including the employee raises and other important spending in a supplemental budget that includes the controversial funding for shelters could mean the whole $2.8 billion bill could be shot down.

"Because we're currently meeting in informal sessions, and in those informal sessions -- and I'd certainly be happy to be corrected by the chair -- any member can object to a matter being taken up," Tarr said. "If we receive a conference committee report, which contains controversial items, it could be that that would happen. And so by not expediting through a report in part, on these priority items, the conference is also risking the fact that these items may not get approved, because they may be objected to in an informal session."

After the session, Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, cautioned against lawmakers splitting up the supplemental budget, such as separating out the collective bargaining agreements from the shelter money.

"Everyone needs to see this done very urgently," she said. "We really are facing a situation if that shelter money doesn't pass now, the whole system, I think at some point in the coming months, would shut down – not just for the new arrival or families on the waitlist. But the money that they sought supplemental funding for is for the entire ecosystem, all the families from Massachusetts and elsewhere who are currently in a shelter."

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