WEEKLY ROUNDUP: Not quite like it’s 1999 | News

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BOSTON — The “Friends” reunion, a renaissance for baggy jeans and tiny sunglasses…and the revival of a Cellucci-era scholarship for future teachers.

“Very fashionable right now to be doing ’90s things,” Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz quipped as he and other House Democrats teased the early education and workforce initiatives in their $49.6 billion budget for fiscal 2023, including the revival of the “Tomorrow’s Teachers” program.

Another ’90s thing in Massachusetts? Republican governors who back tax cuts.

A Republican claimed the corner office in each of the three elections in the 1990s — Bill Weld in 1990 and 1994 and Weld’s lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, in 1998.

“First of all, as governor, I never met a tax cut I didn’t like,” Weld said in 2019, during his most recent run for president.

The House doesn’t seem to agree, no matter how fashionable the 1990s might be.

The budget that Michlewitz and Speaker Ron Mariano rolled out Wednesday eschews the nearly $700 million in tax breaks that former Weld and Cellucci budget chief, Gov. Charlie Baker, made a centerpiece of his final spending plan.

“Well, we felt they weren’t necessary at the time,” Mariano said.

Proposed investments

The state has been flush with surplus cash — one factor behind calls from Baker and others for tax relief, along with pandemic-driven and inflationary stresses — but with Mariano warning that the fiscal “good times may not roll forever,” the House is looking to reinvest, rather than return, the money in places where it sees the dollars going furthest.

Those investments include $110 million for the strained early education and care sector, increases for housing programs, another year of free school lunches, and free phone calls from prisons and jails. And representatives have hundreds of other spending ideas, with more than 1,400 amendments filed so far.

Candidates Chris Doughty and Kate Campanale, who are hoping voters will ride the wave of ’90s trends and pick another set of Republicans (namely, them) to succeed Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito, knocked the House’s approach. Doughty said House leaders seemed “to be forgetting that the taxpayers might need to reinvest in their household budgets to get through these tough financial times.”

Families with students at the University of Massachusetts will need to find a little something extra in their budgets, after trustees on Wednesday approved the first tuition hike since the pandemic hit. UMass officials stressed that the 2.5 percent bump still lands well below the rate of inflation — which, by the way, has bypassed the ’90s throwback in favor of an earlier decade, climbing at its fastest annual pace since 1981.

Health care providers and payers, meanwhile, will get a bit more financial wiggle room in 2023. The Health Policy Commission agreed to set next year’s cost growth benchmark at 3.6 percent — half a percentage point above this year’s — while also reminding lawmakers of steps the state can take to toughen its health cost-control framework.

One of the commission’s ideas — shifting resources toward high-value areas such as primary care and behavioral health — is also among Baker’s priorities, and a key feature of a bill he’s hoping lawmakers get over the finish line this year.

Baker first filed a similar bill in 2019, and the bulk of it ended up among the pile of legislation that got pushed to the back-burner once the pandemic arrived. He stepped back up to the stove in March with a new version, and while legislative Democrats seem warm to many of his ideas, there’s now a question of whether enough time is left to cook something up.

“It’s almost the end of April. There’s an enormous number of things on the plate of the Legislature,” Sen. Cindy Friedman told Baker during a Monday hearing, asking him what’s on his must-have list if lawmakers are limited in what they’re able to get done before the July 31 end of formal sessions.

Climate concerns

Senators on Thursday added another course to that menu, passing a major climate bill that could give a conference committee lots to chew on over the next three months or so.

The Senate’s answer to the offshore wind bill that cleared the House last month is a $250 million decarbonization package that looks to tackle emissions from transportation, buildings and electricity and give the state specific tools for meeting its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Senate’s plan is broader than the House’s wind-focused bill, and so far it’s not clear if the two branches will look to find a compromise on those two pieces of legislation alone or if other climate policies might end up in the mix.

The House and Senate traded a series of volleys on climate last session before ultimately landing on the law that put the 2050 timeline in place.

In passing their latest bill, senators warned of two different ticking clocks — one, to reach a deal with the House before this session ends and the other, a grimmer race to make serious policy changes before climate impacts become too extreme.

In part, the Senate’s bill aims to make electric vehicles cheaper to buy and more convenient to charge. It would also require that all new cars sold in Massachusetts after 2035 be zero-emission vehicles.

Senate President Karen Spilka has said the need to shift to electric vehicles was underscored by how gas prices soared after Russia invaded Ukraine. Republicans in the Legislature have seen it differently, saying what those per-gallon prices are really screaming is that Massachusetts should give drivers a break from its state tax on gasoline.

Top Democrats, who say a gas-tax holiday could threaten the state’s ability to borrow for transportation projects, have not bought into that line of thinking, and didn’t seem swayed this week when S&P Global Ratings suggested there’s not much need to worry.

The rating agency said temporary gas tax suspensions are “unlikely to have a long-term impact,” while a “greater risk is the potential long-term threat of reduced gas consumption from electric vehicles.”

Seizing on that “unlikely,” Mariano called the statement “bizarre.”

“Now if they’re making the bond ratings and they don’t think they know what’s going to happen, that doesn’t give me any degree of certainty that it would not have an effect on our bond rating,” he said.

Related to the law

Federal officials on Wednesday gave Springfield residents some certainty on what the future holds for their police department, announcing a consent decree that lays out specific reforms and resolves an investigation into the use of force by narcotics bureau officers.

Implementing the decree’s requirements and achieving lasting change will be complex, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and will take years rather than months.

Nearly eight years after Thomas Koonce submitted a petition to have his first-degree murder sentence commuted — and about two months after the commutation was approved — the Parole Board reached the unanimous decision that he is rehabilitated and awarded him parole.

Baker announced in January that he would seek commutations for Koonce — sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1987 murder of 24-year-old Mark Santos — and another man, William Allen. In February, when the Governor’s Council signed off on the state’s first commutations since 2014, an attorney for Allen said his supporters hope he’ll be released by the summer.

STORY OF THE WEEK: While the House lays out its spending priorities, the Senate stakes out its climate to-do list.

SONG OF THE WEEK: Speaking of ’90s, maybe this is the right time for good times to roll.

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