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Burning Down The House

May 20, 2017 06:31AM ● By State House News

Whether it was being blurted out loud or held on the tip of the tongue, the "i" word floated through Beacon Hill this week like a poorly kept secret.Recap and analysis of the week in state government

No, not impeachment or investigation. Though those words got a fair share of airing this week as well. But more topical here at home, the operative word was imbalanced. As in how is the state going to pay for the spending that the Senate will debate next week.

As the unemployment rate ticked up again to 3.9 percent and with state revenues being watched more closely than the State House's resident red-tailed hawk eyes the rabbits that hop blithely across the capitol grounds, Senate leadership released its budget plan for fiscal 2018.

The roughly $40.3 billion budget bill is widely understood to be a document written in erasable ink.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in May and June, budget writers are preparing for the likelihood that revenues will have to be adjusted during negotiations between the branches, which will in turn require spending to be lowered to fit the new frame.

"We recognize that we may need to adjust," Spilka said Tuesday, as she detailed the ways in which she and her committee had invested in local aid, housing, education and economic development.

As put by another senior Senate official: "This budget has a lot of vision, and maybe a few sugar plum fairies."

But even if the numbers won't exactly add up by the end of next week. There's plenty of meaningful pieces in the budget that will shape the debate moving forward. For instance, the Senate chose to include a hotel room tax on short-term rentals, such as those offered through sites like Airbnb, that would generate an estimated $18 million next year.

The Joint Committee on Financial Services is already planning a three-stop tour around the state to get input on the idea of short-term rental taxes and regulations, and the House is waiting for that process to play out. But Spilka's budget put a marker down on the Senate side that's vastly different from what Gov. Charlie Baker included in his own budget.

The Ways and Means budget proposes taxing short-term rentals on day one, while Baker sought to target those unit owners renting their homes like a business for more than 150 days a year.
The Senate budget would give Gov. Baker the go-ahead to pursue an employer assessment to cover MassHealth, or Medicaid expenses, though senators would apply the assessment on certain companies with 25 or more employees, instead of 10 or more as Baker recommended. Unlike the House, the Senate also gave Baker the choice of a second option - to raise the existing Employer Medical Assistance Contribution employer fee - which is favored by some small business groups.

Even though the Democrat-controlled House and Senate are both now on record essentially putting their full faith and trust in the Republican governor to resolve the controversial issue of how much to tax businesses to pay for MassHealth, Democrat Jay Gonzalez credited the Legislature with "reining in" Baker by recommending adjustments to the governor's employer assessment proposal and lowering the revenue target by about half.

That was not all Gonzalez had to say this week either. As the temperatures heated up, so did the race for governor.

Before criticizing the employer assessment proposal Baker put on the table in January, the former state budget chief chastised the governor for his non-committal posturing toward the likely 2018 ballot question to raise income taxes on millionaires.

Gonzalez supports the "Fair Share" amendment - as well as a tax on soda and a freeze of the general income tax at 5.1 percent - while Baker opposes the latter two, but has refused to take a firm position on the millionaires' tax.

As the earliest entrant on the Democratic side, Gonzalez appears to be trying to get some traction as a foil to Baker before his opponents get out of the gate. He also became one of the first political figures at the state level to call for President Donald Trump's impeachment.

Bombshell after bombshell landed this week ahead of Trump's first trip overseas, raising the country's collective level of anxiety over the probe into Russian election interference and giving Democrats a win when the Justice Department conceded to appointing a special prosecutor to carry out the probe - former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

But Gonzalez won't have the stage to himself for long.

Environmentalist and 1994 lieutenant governor nominee Bod Massie formally kicked off his campaign, and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, it appears, is not far behind.

Tassy Warren, Setti's wife, sent an email to her husband's supporter list this week announcing that the mayor would be "announcing the first step he'll take to lead the commonwealth forward" at a block party this weekend in Newton. On Friday, they upgrade it to making "an announcement about the Massachusetts governor's race" and made clear they would have room for TV satellite trucks.

Though his political advisors would not specifically confirm, that first step will presumably be admitting something everyone has basically known for a long time - that he is actually running for governor.
The block party event comes two weeks before Democrats will gather in Worcester for the party's off-election year convention where all declared candidates for governor will get to address hundreds of party activists.

So far, so early in the process, most of the focus for Democrats has been on Baker, and to an extent Trump. But at some point, one would assume, the candidates will have to begin paying attention to and differentiating themselves from their primary opponents.

That may or may not start in Worcester.

Gonzalez did not succeed in drawing Baker out on the "Fair Share" amendment, but some students and activists had better luck on different topics.

The governor came out in support of the Paris climate accord and an extension of temporary protected status for Haitian immigrants after the 2010 earthquake as activists were organizing to march on his State House office.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg also came out in support of fast-tracking legislation barring a parent convicted of rape from obtaining visitation or custody rights to a child conceived during the rape, and said he felt growing momentum behind a push to raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes to 21.

A group of House lawmakers tasked with monitoring the White House (which is no easy task at the moment) also inched closer to recommending passage of two online privacy bills that would protect data from seizure by law enforcement without a warrant and prohibit internet service providers from selling a customer's browsing history and other personal information without consent.

House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, who affectionately referred to the task force he leads as "The Therapy Committee," was appropriately freaked out by how accessible personal information stored online can be for third parties.

And if legislation doesn't work, he offered another idea to keep information stored in the "cloud or in the sewer" private.

"I'm going home and burning my house down," he said.
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