In addition to the proposal for access to abortion that has made headlines in recent weeks, the state budget negotiators have approved another major policy change: a Senate proposal to allow ignition lock devices for first-time drunk offenders.
“It did it,” said Aaron Michlewitz, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to the intelligence service after the employees submitted the compromise budget (H 5164) on Thursday at 7:30 pm. “It did it at the end of the day.”
Drunk Driving Mothers (MADD) have been calling on lawmakers for years to adopt the proposal as another tool to improve Massachusetts public safety and curb cases of drunk driving.
The Senate added the measure to its budget through an amendment proposed by Senator Bruce Tarr, the minority leader. He said Massachusetts was the only state without such an approach to first-time offenders. Tarr cited MADD reports that the number of deaths from drunk driving has increased 9 percent since 2014, while arrests have decreased.
“We have waited too long to approve this vital tool that can prevent tragedy on the streets of our state,” Tarr said after his amendment was approved. If adopted, the measure could “curb the pain and harm of senseless loss of life by a drunk driver that could have been prevented with proven and road-tested technology,” he said.
The budget driver authorizes the registrar of motor vehicles to restrict hardship permits in all cases involving defendants operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher, requiring an ignition lock on every vehicle they own must be installed or leased.
The device is connected to the ignition of a vehicle and will prevent the vehicle from starting if it detects the presence of alcohol when a person blows into a hose. They are already required for repeat offenders, with the costs being borne by the offenders.
The budget bill includes external sections that codify the right to abortion in state law and legalize abortions for women after 24 weeks of pregnancy when a doctor has diagnosed a fatal fetal abnormality. The provision would also reduce the age at which a woman can start the procedure without parental or court consent from 18 to 16 years.
Governor Charlie Baker has not said what he thinks of these budget supplements, but in the past he has said that he supports existing state abortion laws, but not “late” abortions.
Michlewitz said the negotiators used the Senate language for changes to abortion access in their final budget.
“We are very proud to take this major step in the Commonwealth of Women elections and look forward to its success,” he said.
Spend the reserve
The House and Senate budget proposals each came to around $ 46 billion, but the negotiators came from the conference committee with a spending budget of around $ 46.2 billion. Michlewitz explained that conference attendees largely chose to fund the spending priorities favored by both industries and pull more from reserves to pay for them.
“There have been initiatives on both sides that we wanted to make sure they were fully funded,” Michlewitz said, providing insights into the way negotiators have settled differences during their private conversations. “We had a challenging time here because there was less income to work with, but the need was greater.”
The budget plan spends $ 700 million more than Baker recommended, raising questions about how much spending he could possibly turn down, and pulls $ 350 million more from the Rainy Day fund than Baker’s revised budget for fiscal 2021.
Michlewitz said the proposed $ 1.7 billion withdrawal from state savings would lead the fund around $ 1.8 billion into the 2022 fiscal cycle. He defended the use of reserves, citing demands for spending on food insecurity, domestic violence services, drug addiction services and housing.
“It still keeps us in good financial shape for fiscal 22 and beyond,” he said. “We still have $ 1.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, which gives us something to work with in the future.”
In late October, before lawmakers put its spending plans in place, Baker forecast a “pretty decent” spending plan for fiscal 2022, partly due to his belief that Congress will provide additional aid.
“I really think the big thing for me is that we have a big fund for rainy days that can help us this year and next, and I think that at some point the government will get around to at least some sort of thing that they all agreed on earlier and just couldn’t pass it on, and if they just do that and our economy continues to get modestly better, I think we’ll be fine, “Baker said at the time.
The five-month late state budget is based on a tax revenue assumption that expects collections to decline more than 6 percent, or $ 2 billion, this fiscal year. However, five months after the start of the fiscal year, collections are slightly higher than revenue for the same period of fiscal 2020 that preceded the pandemic.
Michlewitz urged caution with tax receipts, but admitted that they “have remained reasonably consistent and stable”.
The North End Democrat also defended the wait-and-see approach to budgeting adopted by lawmakers this year, which has resulted in the newest state budget in modern history.
“If we had just gone for a typical fiscal cycle, we would have missed the mark we were in for tax purposes,” he said. “It made sense to run a late schedule, create temporary budgets, keep things moving in the Commonwealth and see where we got to in the fall. And I think at the end of the day our patience paid off.”
He added, “It worked in the sense that … we didn’t have to make any drastic cuts within this budget cycle. And I said that if you had told me in March or April that it would be us. ” I could have told you that you are crazy. But the fact is, we did it, and that’s because of patience, hard work, determination and collaboration. “
The next budget starts now
It is proposed to increase spending by more than 5 percent in the 2021 budget without raising taxes or cutting services, and is largely made possible by the high use of reserves and an increase in federal aid.
Next year’s state budget – the focus of talks slated to begin this month – will start with a sales hole of more than $ 3 billion, as so much one-time revenue was used in fiscal 2021. Michlewitz said an announcement is expected soon about a consensus revenue hearing, which is expected to take place in mid-December.
“We’re getting into Fiscal Year 22 pretty soon,” he said. “We’re going to try to get this back into a normal situation. This has certainly been a unique experience over the past few months and we’re going to try to get this thing back into a regular cycle as best we can.”
Baker is expected to submit its budget for fiscal 2022 in late January, and Michlewitz said budget officials would try to reach a consensus on the likely tax collections for the coming fiscal year by late December or early January.
Problems kicked forward
Another major policy decision included in the budget is extending the postal vote to March 31, 2021 for local elections. Michlewitz predicted that mail-in votes will be a topic of debate over the next few months, based in part on an assessment of the development of the voting process in the 2020 elections.
“I think there will be a number of options that will be discussed,” he said. “I think we all think this was a big hit, the mail-in voting process. I think it worked very well for democracy in Massachusetts and for ballot box access for the people, and I think that we want that to be. ” consider long-term. “
The compromise budget also instructs the MBTA to reconsider proposed cuts to services in the event that additional federal aid should become available, but dropped a Senate-approved plan to establish a new structure of higher fees for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
Both branches approved higher fees for hail drives this year, but didn’t agree on a consensus plan.
“I think we are still open to finding out something in this direction with our colleagues in the Senate, but we were of the opinion that the budget was not the appropriate means for this,” said Michlewitz.
Michlewitz explained the decision by the House of Representatives’ negotiators to follow the approach recommended in the Senate budget for cuts to T services, noting that controversial and profound cuts to MBTA services have been proposed, which are now up for a vote in the MBTA Board of Directors on December 14th after Members of the House submitted budget changes last month.
“It was a little difficult for us to cope with while we tried to continue our budget discussions,” he said. “The Senate President presented a language. We felt that we could work with it.”
A coalition of patient advocacy groups celebrated another policy change on Friday that made it into the final budget. A 2012 law allowing patients to redeem discount coupons for prescription drugs at pharmacies to reduce copay costs expires at the end of the year. However, the budget provides for the language to be extended until 2023.
“Without being able to take advantage of these prescription discounts, many patients would simply stop taking their medication, their illnesses would get worse, and they could end up back in their doctor’s office or emergency room,” said Richard Pezzillo, executive director of the New England Hemophilia Association , who leads the Coalition for Prescription Access Patients, said. “Insurers are increasingly charging patients higher expenses and these rebate programs offer financial relief that is becoming increasingly important as the COVID-19 pandemic has created significantly more financial hardship for so many people. We sincerely hope the governor continues to do so the language that extends and signs the law in the household. “
The conference committee budget is expected to clear both branches during the Friday afternoon sessions.