From the Beacon, September 2022

When the final gavels fell in the House and Senate chambers on the morning of Aug. 1, it marked the official transition from formal to informal sessions for the rest of the year. The two-year legislative session for 2021-2022 did not end. Rather it entered a new phase in which lawmakers conduct business without roll calls, with unanimous agreement required to advance any motion or measure.

Informal sessions are common in all legislative bodies, allowing routine business to advance without demanding the attendance of all members, so that lawmakers can focus their time and attention on preparing, negotiating, and organizing key issues that will be debated, compromised, and reshaped as needed to win approval from at least a majority. In Massachusetts, lawmakers toggle between formal and informal sessions for 17 months, starting in the first January all the way through the second July.

Under the rules, the final five months are spent exclusively in informal sessions. This format was adopted to prevent “lame duck” sessions, in which departing legislators who are no longer accountable to the voters can pass laws, saving controversial issues for the next set of lawmakers who will take office after voters have their say in elections in September and November.

Faced with a July 31 deadline, the pace of legislative activity reached a crescendo during the final days of formal sessions, and our representatives and senators enacted major legislation, capping off an extremely productive year and a half. The largest state budget in history was sent to the governor, with significant municipal and education aid increases. Huge infrastructure bond bills were passed, including MassTRAC, an $11.4 billion measure to invest in roads, bridges, transit and environmental capital needs, and a $5.2 billion general government bond with funds for housing, water supplies, local projects, cultural facilities and state assets. A powerful climate bill was enacted, with policies, investments, and programs to make Massachusetts a leader in addressing global warming. New laws were written on mental health access, sports betting, cannabis, soldiers’ home reforms, reproductive rights, gun licensure, extending the option of remote public meetings, and much more.

In the aftermath, there has been a lot of focus on the measures that did not make it across the formal-session finish line, primarily because it’s human nature to look at the part of the glass that is one-third empty instead of the two-thirds that is filled with significant achievements.

One reason that the July 31 finish line is not the end of the policy-making race is that the Legislature has a long track record of navigating complex policy issues through informal sessions, including year-end budget bills, corrective legislation, and high-consensus measures that are fully vetted. The only bills that are off-limits are ones that require a recorded roll call, such as bond bills and certain land transfers. Given this history, there are many important bills that can move forward during the next several months, measures that can benefit cities and towns and meet critical needs for our residents, taxpayers and economy.

Two of these bills deserve special mention because of their magnitude: the economic development bill and legislation investing in our local public health system.

Economic development
The most visible issue is the $4 billion economic development and tax relief bill that was paused at the last minute when news hit that up to $3 billion of the state’s surplus revenue will need to go back to taxpayers under Chapter 62F, a 1986 law that caps allowable tax growth. This will shrink the fiscal 2022 budget surplus by more than half. With about one-third of the economic development bill funded with surplus revenues, and a lack of clarity about how the tax rebate would be distributed, lawmakers opted to delay action until the fiscal picture comes into better focus in September.

The good news is that it now appears that the remaining surplus, even after closing out the 2022 budget year with necessary transfers and new spending authorizations proposed by the governor, will still reach about $1.5 billion. Combined with the remaining $2.2 billion in the state’s American Rescue Planning Act account, this will provide ample resources to allow legislators to advance a large economic development package that includes funding for key municipal priorities that were in the House and Senate bills, such as MassWorks grants, environmental infrastructure, the Clean Water Trust, and affordable housing, as well as a multitude of shovel-ready local projects.

With some members of Congress gearing up to claw back unspent ARPA funds, waiting until next year to act on the state’s ARPA funds would put those funds at risk, which is why moving forward in the coming weeks is the best strategy. Even during formal sessions, the House and Senate passed their respective economic bills by unanimous vote, a positive signal that this critically important bill will make it to the governor’s desk shortly.

Cities and towns will use these vital resources to build stronger local economies and meet key needs for residents and taxpayers, which is why local officials are eager to work with their legislators to pass this bill as soon as possible.

Public health
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear to all that local public health departments are vital to the health and safety of everyone in the Commonwealth. The pandemic also unveiled significant disparities between communities and populations, in terms of access to services and available funding to support robust services. That’s why the MMA greatly appreciates and supports the intent of pending legislation to invest in our public health system.

H. 5104, known as SAPHE (“safe”) 2.0, is a proposal to advance the capacity of local and regional public health departments. Its goal is to strengthen capacity, collaboration, and investment in public health across the board. As the bill was moving through the process, the MMA consistently voiced strong support for the intent, and deep reservations about its potential to impose a new and unaffordable annual unfunded mandate of at least $140 million on municipalities without adding clear protections.

The legislation calls on the state to provide funding to boards of health to implement and comply with new state-set minimum operational and service standards. The aspirational goal of H. 5104 is to support the transformation of public health through future investments. As written, however, the bill does not mandate that the state meet its obligation to financially support the outlined goals. Instead, the state’s responsibilities would be subject to appropriation, while municipalities would not have that flexibility, and would be forced to fund the new costs imposed by the Department of Public Health, regardless of whether future state support is sufficient, and regardless of limits of Proposition 2½.

The bill was enacted by the Legislature in July without addressing this fundamental concern. The governor recognized the dangers of an unaffordable unfunded mandate in future years, and he returned it to the Legislature with a proposed amendment. The bill is still pending, and lawmakers are considering how to move forward.

Since gubernatorial vetoes cannot be overridden during informal sessions, the clear solution is to add language clarifying that the final bill would not impose an unfunded mandate, by making local obligations conditioned on receiving full state funding of all additional costs necessary to implement the new law. That way, if future state funding falls short (which is very common with many state mandates), communities would be relieved of their new responsibilities. This would provide the same subject-to-appropriation standard for cities and towns that the bill would set for state agencies.

The MMA’s proposal would incentivize the state to fulfill its obligation to provide the necessary funding, safeguard local budgets, and guarantee a full and sustainable state-local partnership to fortify our public health systems for the future. Passage this fall, during the informal session, would give the incoming governor the lead time needed to include necessary funding in his or her fiscal 2024 budget proposal, which must be submitted to the Legislature shortly after the new governor takes office next year.

Cities and towns will use these vital resources to build stronger local public health departments and close health disparities within and between communities, which is why local officials are eager to work with their legislators to amend and pass this bill as soon as possible.

On economic development, public health, and many more issues, our lawmakers have a busy autumn ahead of them, and local leaders recognize and appreciate their continued hard work.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO