‘Everything Is Still Up in the Air': What Mass. Lawmakers Are Scrambling to Decide

Where the Democrats who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate come down on tax relief Sunday will likely end up as one of the most consequential decisions of the session, both in terms of policy and politics

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The day of decisions has arrived.

As Massachusetts' senators and representatives prepare Sunday for the final formal session of the year as allowed by their joint rules, all eyes are on the five conference committees still negotiating significant policy topics that the House and Senate each have passed legislation to address: economic development, cannabis industry reforms, sports betting, mental health access and open space preservation.

There's also the issue of the offshore wind and climate policy bill that Gov. Charlie Baker sent back Friday covered in the red ink of amendments, and the soldiers' homes administration bill he similarly returned on Saturday that the LegislatureS will also likely have to address before they are limited to informal sessions, during which the objection of any one member of the House or Senate can derail a piece of legislation.

And a multibillion-dollar question -- whether or how the Legislature will adjust their own plans for tax relief in light of a long-forgotten law that appears could send billions back to taxpayers -- still lingers.

"Definitely a long day. We do have a lot of work and that's when things will come together, we hope," Sen. Will Brownsberger told reporters late Saturday afternoon as he forecast that the Legislature will be working "late" Sunday night or even into the early hours of Monday.

Where the Democrats who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate come down on tax relief Sunday will likely end up as one of the most consequential decisions of the session, both in terms of policy and politics.

"Everybody's talking about it, everybody's thinking about it," Brownsberger said.

A state surplus could mean tax relief for residents, but it's not a done deal.

Having already approved $500 million in one-time rebates and $500 million in permanent tax relief in the still-under-negotiations economic development bill, legislative leaders were caught off guard this week when it became clear that an existing state law could require the state to soon return between $2.5 billion and $3 billion from its gangbusters tax collections to taxpayers.

Now the talks are revolving around whether that 1986 voter law known as Chapter 62F should be undone, changed, or delayed, and whether the Legislature will still go ahead with its own tax relief plans in parallel. Folks on the right say both approaches are affordable, but Democrats especially seem unsure about what to do.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who gave voice Friday to the idea that Democrats could strike or render ineffective the 1986 law in favor of their own tax relief package, told Bloomberg BayState Business on Friday that he supports paying out the money called for in 62F.

"Well I am, but that doesn't mean that you're going to get the tax cuts too," he said when asked why he wouldn't support doing something that has been a matter of law for 35 years. "I didn't say we were gonna cut it out, I said we're considering it. You know, it comes down to what people want. Do they want the tax cut that's permanent and is diverse or do you want the windfall?"

And if people want both...

"Well, we'd have to see if we can afford both," Mariano said Friday, adding that he does not think he and others on Beacon Hill are being "stingy" with relief for taxpayers.

"I think we have permanent tax cuts that we're putting into effect; permanent tax cuts. This is a stunt that was triggered by a law made in 1986 that gives people a one-time opportunity to get money," he said. "When it was rolled out to us, they weren't even sure how they get the money back. The last time they did this in [1987], half the people didn't get the money that they were owed because they didn't know how to apply for it."

On Friday, Mariano said he was "optimistic that a lot of things that we are exchanging proposals on now will come to some agreement." Asked Saturday evening where talks around 62F and the economic development bill stood, Mariano told a News Service reporter, "everything is still up in the air."

An economic development bill is typically one of the last items of business that Beacon Hill finishes before the session concludes, but this year's bill has some unique features that could make the task this year even more complicated.

In addition to the roughly $1 billion in tax rebates and reforms, the Legislature included
billions of dollars of fiscal year 2022 surplus, more than $1 billion in bond authorizations, and nearly $1.5 billion of American Rescue Plan Act money -- federal funding that does not need to be designated for any particular use until the end of 2024.

"We've made decisions. We've made decisions based on the fact that we didn't owe $2.5 billion. So now we have to go back and reevaluate all those decisions we made," Mariano said Friday on Bloomberg about the way the various parts of the economic development bill related to Chapter 62F.

There are also other bills floating in the Beacon Hill ether that have not received the same kind of attention as tax relief, sports betting (a topic where talks were stirring Sunday morning) and other headlining topics, but which still face crucial decisions Sunday.

Plainridge Park is planning to host live harness horse racing Monday afternoon, but that is contingent upon the House and Senate agreeing to an extension of the legal authority for racing and simulcasting since the current authority ends after Sunday. The Senate on Thursday added a provision to the extension bill that the House did not: a ban on simulcast wagering on greyhound dog races taking place in other states or countries.

Both branches have also taken slightly different tacks on legislation to put restrictions on -- but not totally ban -- step therapy, the practice in which some patients are made to try and fail on insurance-preferred treatments before their insurer will approve a more expensive treatment prescribed by a doctor. That one is not in a conference committee, but would need to be ironed out into a final version amid all of the other activity at the State House on Sunday.

State House News Service's Chris Lisinski contributed to this report.

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