Where state lawmakers did and didn’t make deals

The Massachusetts House and Senate struck eleventh-hour deals to legalize sports betting, update the state’s gun laws and expand access to mental health care after an all-night legislative session, but their plans to secure $1 billion in tax relief they stopped early Monday morning.

State lawmakers convened Sunday for their final official legislative session of the 2021-2022 term, and by Monday morning a slew of major bills that had been tied up in private negotiations for weeks had either landed on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk or were on their way there.

Lawmakers announced just after 5 a.m. that they had reached agreements on the mental health and sports betting bills. Around the same time, a compromise bill was introduced that lawmakers say would bring the state’s gun licensing laws into line with the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

The gun bill completely cleared the Legislature and is now before Baker for review, along with bills dealing with climate and cannabis policy. As of 9am, final procedural votes were still needed on the sports betting and mental health bills

As for sports betting, the House of Representatives had originally voted to legalize betting on professional and college sports, while the Senate wanted to leave out college athletics. The final bill includes some college contests, but does not allow betting on teams from Massachusetts schools unless the in-state team has participated in a tournament like March Madness.

A more than $4 billion economic development package that contained a series of tax cuts was left unfinished after the re-emergence of an obscure state law confounded the plans of Democrats in the Legislature. Lawmakers were caught off guard when Baker said last week that he believed Massachusetts collected enough taxes last year to trigger a 1986 law that calls for the state to return excess revenue to taxpayers.

The Baker administration estimates that Massachusetts residents could receive almost $3 billion under this law, though the exact amount won’t be known until September. Top Democrats in the House and Senate have said they want to be sure the state can afford both the tax credits required by the law and any other relief before acting.

“Having a $3 billion bill thrown at you a week before you’re about to finalize your year-end financials doesn’t make for good decision-making, so we wanted to make sure — to be fiscally prudent — that we knew what I was getting into.” said House Speaker Ronald Mariano. “The economy is going through some weird things — big inflation, swings in oil and gas — that could lead to a recession.”

Baker said both the credits and the Legislature’s tax relief package — which includes one-time rebates of $250; property tax reforms; and breaks for seniors, parents, renters and low-income workers — are available, but lawmakers aren’t on the same page with it.

“That’s a lot of money,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodriguez told reporters shortly after 5 a.m. “We’ve been very, very careful over the last two years, three years after the pandemic, to be fiscally responsible and the fiscally responsible thing to do to do is to hit pause right now on all spending.

Rodriguez said lawmakers were disappointed to delay the multibillion-dollar economic development bill, which included big investments in health and human services, child care, housing and the environment along with money for local projects. But the bill is not dead. The House and Senate will continue to meet in January, although they will do so in informal sessions, where any objection by a single lawmaker could block a bill from passage.

Other major legislative action from the weekend included:

  • On Friday, Baker brought back the climate and energy policy bill with his recommended amendments. On Sunday night, the House and Senate sent him a new version that includes some of his proposed changes but rejects others.
  • Congressman Jeff Roy, the House’s lead negotiator on the climate bill, said he wasn’t thrilled with all elements of the final bill, but the nature of the compromise meant all sides had to give a little. Lawmakers have made it clear that they are entrusting the fate of the bill to Baker.

    “With his actions on this bill, he could be the governor who transforms climate and energy policy in Massachusetts, or he could be the one who pulled the plug on electrification and took away the power of offshore wind,” Roy said.

  • The House and Senate agreed around midnight Sunday to compromise legislation that would reform cannabis policy. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said the bill would “rebalance the playing field where, until now, wealthy corporations could buy their way through the licensing process and too many local small business owners and black entrepreneurs were left out.” Among other measures, the bill creates a social capital trust fund to support entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry who come from communities disproportionately harmed by the prohibition of marijuana.
  • Baker made a last-ditch effort to get lawmakers to buy into changing laws surrounding dangerousness hearings to make it easier to hold certain defendants before trial. He attached parts of that bill to legislation passed as part of this year’s state budget that would eliminate phone charges for people in jail and prison. Baker and supporters pitched his bill as a way to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, but opposing lawmakers had concerns about due process.
  • The House of Representatives rejected a new, narrower version of Baker’s bill on Saturday, while the Senate took a different approach. Around 1:30 a.m. Monday, the Senate agreed to an amendment from Minority Leader Bruce Tarr that further deflected what the governor had proposed in hopes of finding a compromise.

    The House did not take up the Senate amendment, effectively ending the conversation on both endangerment and free-call reforms.

  • Baker said Sunday night that he was “grateful” that lawmakers had reached a deal on an $11 billion bond bill investing in transportation and environmental infrastructure. That bill includes $400 million for the MBTA to make safety fixes identified in a federal investigation.
  • A bill overhauling the governance structure of the state’s two long-term care facilities for veterans, in Chelsea and Holyoke, is back on Baker’s desk after lawmakers agreed to his proposed changes. The bill is a response to the deadly 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

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