The Massachusetts Legislature ended formal sessions for the year early Thursday morning with no agreement on a spending bill to steer money toward the emergency shelter crisis, a negotiating collapse among Democrats that douses the state’s response to that situation in uncertainty.
After keeping sessions open for roughly 13 hours over the course of the day while top Democrats traded proposals via email and phone, the House and Senate abruptly pivoted after midnight to naming a conference committee to embark on more formal negotiations.
Ways and Means Committee Chairs Aaron Michlewitz and Michael Rodrigues told reporters — in separate press huddles — that they were unable to find agreement to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of a $2.8 billion spending bill.
“We weren’t close enough to try to see it through tonight. Obviously, over the last couple of years, we’ve had some late nights here, and I think at those points in time, we felt we could really get something done and so we really wanted to see it through,” Michlewitz said. “But I think at the point where we are at, both us and our Senate counterparts felt it was time to pack it up for tonight and try to see if we can talk tomorrow.”
Rodrigues said he was “very disappointed” in the outcome.
“Our goal was to get it done tonight, but we just weren’t able to,” he said.
While Democrats got tripped up on their differences, both the House and Senate bills would steer $250 million toward the shelter system while also scheduling the state primary on Sept. 3, 2024, funding collectively bargained raises for state employees, and clearing the way for contract renegotiations on a hydropower transmission project that is key to Massachusetts’ clean energy goals.
The failure to complete a deal means Democrats will need to steer a final bill through the choppy waters of informal sessions. Legislative rules set Wednesday as the final day for formal sessions until Jan. 3, and for the next seven weeks, any single lawmaker’s objection can delay a bill’s passage. Also, spending bills like the supplemental budget die on Jan. 2, 2024, the final day of the first “annual session” in the 2023-2024 lawmaking term. If lawmakers cannot achieve a deal by then, the entire process would need to restart from square one.
Republicans in both chambers opposed the spending bills over concerns about the state’s response to the emergency shelter crisis fueled in large part by migrant arrivals, and it’s unclear if they would use their newfound leverage to prevent a final version from reaching Gov. Maura Healey’s desk.
“I’m confident, at least in the Senate, that we’ll be able to secure the votes to pass the bill once we get it through the conference,” Rodrigues said. “I can’t speak for the House.”
House and Senate Democrats both agree on fulfilling a request Healey made more than two months ago to inject $250 million more toward emergency shelters, which already received $325 million in the state’s annual budget, amid a period of unprecedented demand. But they are split on whether to dictate how the new money must be used.
The House plan would set more specific requirements on shelter spending, and it would also order the Healey administration to stand up at least one overflow site within 30 days for families unable to access shelter. If officials failed to do so, they would be ordered to lift a capacity limit Healey imposed on the system, citing a lack of providers, space or funding to continue expanding.
Senators did not support that prescriptive approach and instead have said they want to continue to give the administration leeway to decide how to manage the crisis.
“We just want to prevent people from sleeping in the streets or sleeping in airports or sleeping in our train stations or emergency rooms,” Michlewitz said. “… Our plan in particular sets an agenda, sets a course, of making sure that those that are above the cap at least have a place to temporarily stay while they’re going through the waitlist process.”
Anti-homelessness advocates lamented the Legislature’s inaction, warning that families currently on the administration-imposed waitlist — most recently estimated at nearly two dozen — “don’t have a place to stay.”
“We’re really in unchartered territory. For 40 years, Massachusetts has had a right to shelter, has guaranteed shelter placement for every eligible family, so this is the first time that we’re seeing the state impose a waiting list and talk about establishing a cap on how long families can stay in shelter,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s really unknown what’s next for families experiencing homelessness and families who right now in Massachusetts are facing eviction, facing housing instability.”
Turley said although she sees “room for compromise” between the branches in how the $250 million should be used, she believes lawmakers need to embrace the House’s plan to order the launch of overflow sites.
The lack of a deal prevents the state from closing its books on fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30, and leaves in limbo billions of dollars in spending.
The so-called closeout supplemental budget also includes hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver on collectively bargained raises to state employees, schedules the 2024 state primary elections for Sept. 3, 2024, and includes language to allow Avangrid to renegotiate contracts with energy distribution companies for parts of a transmission project linking hydroelectric power generated in Quebec to the regional grid. That project, which could become a source of clean energy for Massachusetts, had been upended by a ballot question in Maine and lengthy delays before a legal resolution.
The Legislature operates on a two-year session and the thousands of bills filed for consideration earlier this year remain in play through 2024, although the House and Senate are now expected to hold only light, twice-weekly informal sessions through December.
Lawmakers and Healey agreed to a major tax relief law this year and significant spending increases backed up by a new stream of revenue from the income surtax on wealthier households that voters approved in 2022. Action on scores of other pressing issues, including clean energy, transportation woes, and the housing affordability crisis, will have to wait until next year.
The joint committees assigned to review bills have until Feb. 7, 2024 to make recommendations. The last stretch of formal sessions in 2024, culminating at the end of July, features the most extensive legislating, but also overlaps with the extreme amount of time and effort attached to the annual state budget.
While the unsuccessful negotiations were happening, the House churned through amendments to legislation aimed at boosting the long-term care industry workforce and subjecting the industry to new oversight, regulation and steeper penalties for violations.
Specifically, the House bill gives state public health regulators new tools to ensure that nursing homes are meeting their responsibilities, including the potential to newly limit, suspend or revoke home licenses for cause and to appoint temporary managers. Under the bill, licensure suitability standards would also change to include a more comprehensive review of the background and legal record of applicants.
The bill also sets a two-year term for licenses, requires annual inspections and a 90-day “notice of intent to acquire” to be processed in the event of a transfer, and requires new state rules governing the development of small house nursing homes limited to no more than 14 individuals per unit.
To give nursing homes a hand up, the bill requires the state to establish workforce training programs and career ladder training to lift certified nurse assistants, home health aides, homemakers aspiring to become licensed practical nurses, and supervisory and leadership training. Homes would also be able to take advantage of no-interest or forgivable loans to offset certain capital costs and fund capital improvements.
House Elder Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Tom Stanley of Waltham recalled his father’s experience in long-term care and described constituents calling to say they couldn’t secure nursing home placements due to staffing shortages, or that their loved one needed a new placement due to a sudden home closure.
The bill pairs workforce development with efforts to target “bad actors” in the sector through accountability, transparency and oversight measures, Stanley said, citing abrupt home closures, patient abuse and diminished care as among the issues that are in need of immediate legislative solutions.
The Senate also held a marathon session Wednesday, working on its latest version of a prescription drug access bill.
While they haven’t been able to entice the House to join them, senators voted 39-0 just before 10:45 p.m. on their third legislative attempt in as many sessions to rein in prices that Bay Staters pay for prescription drugs and subject pharmaceutical companies to greater regulatory scrutiny.
The bill would require pharmacy benefit managers to be licensed, empower the Center for Health Information and Analysis to more closely examine prescription drugs, give the Health Policy Commission new tools to control high prices, and create a fund to help cover costs for lower-income patients.
The latest version newly features a provision capping out-of-pocket costs for some widely used medications that treat chronic illnesses at $25 for name-brand versions and at $0 for generic alternatives.
Senators embraced several changes during the amendment process, including one from Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford calling for a study of restricting certain marketing practices by pharmaceutical representatives.
The bill drew a mixed review from the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, which represents insurance carriers. President Lora Pellegrini said insurers believe the reforms will “finally hold drugmakers to the same transparency and accountability standards required for health plans and providers.”
“However, we are deeply disappointed that the bill includes provisions that will eliminate important cost-saving health plan tools, increase pharmaceutical spending, and decrease oversight of network pharmacies,” she added in a statement. “We believe provisions added to the bill will increase prescription drug spending that will translate into higher premiums for employers and consumers.”
(Copyright (c) 2023 State House News Service.