Speaker: Suspend pot negotiations until budget plan approved

BOSTON (AP) — The state’s top Democratic lawmakers clashed Wednesday over who’s to blame for the failure to pass two key pieces of legislation: an overdue state budget and a highly-watched bill making changes to the state’s voter-approved recreational marijuana law.

Speaker Robert DeLeo late Wednesday issued a statement asking House negotiators working to hammer out a compromise marijuana bill to suspend their talks until a final state budget is approved and sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

DeLeo said it’s important to get the budget bill wrapped up for the fiscal year that began July 1. He said he believes lawmakers can get a budget to Baker this week.

“A key reason for our consistently high bond ratings has been our commitment to balanced, on-time spending plans,” DeLeo said. “In light of Standard & Poor’s recent decision to downgrade Massachusetts’ bond rating, we need now more than ever to get a budget done.”

DeLeo said ongoing negotiations on a final budget and final marijuana bill have never been linked by the House and “tying unrelated negotiations together for political leverage does a disservice to the residents of the commonwealth.”

Senate President Stan Rosenberg issued his own statement, saying that the “mischief makers are once again at work.”

“The Senate has not and will not link the budget and marijuana negotiations. Period.” Rosenberg said. “The Senate is fully committed to continuing negotiations on both the budget and marijuana legislation simultaneously.”

Negotiations on both bills are taking place behind closed doors at the Statehouse.

The six-member marijuana conference committee missed last Friday’s self-imposed deadline and resumed talks Wednesday.

The House voted to repeal the recreational marijuana law approved by Massachusetts voters last fall and replace it with a bill that calls for sharply higher taxes on legal pot sales and more control for local officials over marijuana stores in their communities.

The Senate passed a bill that keeps the current law with a number of proposed changes.

State government has continued to operate despite the lack of a new budget because of a temporary stopgap budget intended to avoid a shutdown as negotiations continue between House and Senate conferees charged with coming up with a final spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year.

Part of the problem is lawmakers are struggling to address a tax revenue shortfall that has thrown in doubt the assumptions on which the state’s $40.3 billion budget is based.

According to the latest estimates from Baker’s administration, the revenue shortfall for fiscal 2017, which ended on Friday, is around $430 million.

Last month, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Massachusetts’ bond rating, citing the state’s failure to rebuild its rainy day fund. The agency said the state’s reserves peaked at fiscal year 2012 levels, declined through 2014, and stagnated.

The agency also pointed to the state’s “tendency to experience revenue volatility, elevated debt levels, and below-average pension funded ratio.”

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