State House Report: A Watched Pot Never Boils
Jul 05, 2017 06:26AM ● Published by State House News
Shuffling off into the weekend, tails tucked between their legs, important decisions hanging over their heads, not even the enticement of fireworks, parades and an unencumbered four-day break could pull a compromise out of the back rooms of the State House where frustrations between the branches were mounting.
Two issues were in play this week, both with looming, if inconsequential deadlines. Anticipation, unrequited, was high.
The new fiscal year begins Saturday, but with an interim budget in place to pay $5.5 billion worth of bills in July, lawmakers had the luxury of not trying to rush a deal if there was no deal to be made. Not only are lawmakers trying to decide what to do with Gov. Charlie Baker's comprehensive Medicaid reform plan dropped on the conference committee last week, but unreliable tax projections have complicated the math.
As for the overhaul of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law, the House and Senate have been at odds over taxes, local control of the siting of retail shops, and the makeup of a regulatory panel known as the Cannabis Control Commission.
Leadership of the House and Senate set an artificial deadline of June 30 to complete their work, but nothing happens if talks spill over into next week, or the week after that.
The tax rate, according to some close to the negotiations, remained at least one of the sticking points with the House entering talks at 28 percent and the Senate asking for an unchanged 12 percent tax rate, as prescribed in the ballot law.
Asked if a deal over marijuana was imminent late Friday afternoon, Sen. Patricia Jehlen shrugged. "How should I know?" said one of the few people actually in a position to be able to answer that question with any authority.
As Beacon Hill waited, the week provided enough actual news to fill what Gov. Charlie Baker described in an interview with the News Service as the "black hole" that is the conference process.
President Donald Trump left mouths, including Baker's, slack-jawed by the cruelty of his Twitter fusillade against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. Eversource and National Grid shelved plans to bring a $3.2 billion natural gas pipeline into New England, Revenue Commissioner Michael Heffernan revoked a directive that would have required many online retailers to begin July 1 collecting sales taxes, and long-serving Education Commission Mitchell Chester passed away after his battle with cancer.
Heffernan's decision to rescind the online sales tax rule, which the governor was counting on to generate $30 million next year, came after a court hearing in which two online seller advocates challenged DOR's authority to make such a rule.
Revenue officials are not backing down, and will instead propose the tax change through regulation, a more public process, but one that if successful will yield the same result.
Some online retailers believe the administration is leaning on a flawed legal argument for forcing retailers that have no "physical presence" in Massachusetts to collect and remit sales taxes, and many believe it will ultimately be left to the courts to decide.
In the meantime, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts is moving aggressively to gather information and feedback from store and restaurant owners about whether they should pursue a ballot question in 2018 to lower the sales tax, and if so how low should they go.
RAM President Jon Hurst said lowering the sales tax could better allow retailers to compete with online shopping and New Hampshire, but before making a final decision RAM put a member survey into the field this week and plans additional public polling.
The deadline to submit a initiative petition for the 2018 ballot with 10 voter signatures is Aug. 2.
Baker got the week started by reaching for his binder full of former Weld administration attorneys to find Appeals Court Chief Justice Scott Kafker and make him the latest nominee to the state's highest court. Kafker's confirmation would give Baker a fifth judge on the Supreme Judicial Court, remarkable given that he's been in office less than three years.
Justice Geraldine Hines, put on the SJC by Gov. Deval Patrick, hits the mandatory retirement age of 70 in October, but plans to leave the court in August.The governor probably didn't have to thumb through too many resumes to find Kafker's either, as it must have been sitting near the top after Baker earlier tapped the fellow Swampscott resident to become the chief of the Appeals Court.
Kafker was confirmed in 2015 on a 7-1 vote from the Governor's Council, and it's hard to see how the math would change all that much this time around.
In a special primary election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Ken Donnelly earlier this year, Donnelly's former chief of staff Cindy Friedman bested Rep. Sean Garballey in a race in which Garballey's House colleague Jay Kaufman played the role of queen-maker.
Garballey narrowly won Arlington, considered the powerbase of the district, but Friedman, who was also endorsed by Donnelly's family, romped in Lexington where Lexingtonian Kaufman campaigned hard for the winner.
While senators waited in vain to finalize a law that will lead to the open, legal sale of joints, cookies and all other types of marijuana intoxicants, the branch went ahead with a debate and vote on a bill that would take the no-texting-while-driving law one step further.
On a voice vote so that no one would actually be on record, the Senate voted for legislation that would ban drivers from touching or holding a mobile device in either hand, except for a "single tap or swipe" to activate hands-free mode.
Jehlen, one of the biggest proselytizers on the dangers of distracted driving, is also overseeing the marijuana negotiations expected to include a high-level blue ribbon commission - in the parlance of legislators - to look at preventing the myriad ways drivers could find themselves impaired when they get behind the wheel.