BOSTON — State lawmakers wrapped up their biennial session over the weekend by frantically pushing through bills dealing with sports betting, mental health and cannabis laws, but failing to take action on a major tax relief program.
Shortly after 5 a.m. Monday morning, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate approved bills legalizing sports betting in the state and expanding access to mental health after the proposals emerged from negotiations in behind closed doors.
The passage of the bills came several hours after the July 31 deadline set by the Legislative Assembly to wrap up formal sessions before adjourning to focus on re-election campaigns.
The sports betting bill, if signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would allow betting on professional and college sports – except Massachusetts colleges and universities – and introduce a system of taxation and regulatory under the direction of the State Gaming Commission. (see related story).
Lawmakers also approved a mental health bill aimed at easing barriers to care and improving behavioral health services. The bill, if it survives Baker’s pen of veto, would require insurers to cover same-day psychiatric services and cover annual mental health exams, similar to wellness checks.
One of the bill’s key architects, Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, said in a statement that the changes will give the state “the tools it needs to enforce existing gender parity laws.” mental health and go to the emergency services council in the event of a crisis that affects too many people”. of our children and their families.
“Massachusetts’ health care system is only as strong as its weakest link, and for too long mental health care has been neglected and underfunded,” she said.
Meanwhile, another bill approved in the final hours of the legislative session would force cities and towns to renegotiate so-called “hospitality agreements” with cannabis retailers and give the Cannabis Control Commission the state more regulatory power over the terms of these agreements.
Impact fees would still be allowed, but they would be capped at 3% of a pottery store’s gross sales, and the fees would expire after eight years.
The changes, if approved, would also create a trust fund to provide loans to minority businesses looking to get into the marijuana business, which Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Jamaica Plain, says will “rebalance rules of the game, where until now wealthy corporations have been able to buy their way through the licensing process.”
Details of the measures were worked out by six-member conference committees that negotiated final versions of the bills in closed-door negotiations. With most bills, yes or no votes took place just hours after the final drafts came out of the committees, leaving little time for lawmakers to consider them.
Beacon Hill leaders have reached consensus on other pieces of legislation in recent days, including a bill to increase the state’s reliance on wind, solar and other renewable energy, expand abortion access and legal protections, and to borrow nearly $5.2 billion to upgrade government buildings.
Yet lawmakers failed to take action on a $4 billion economic development bill that included tax refunds and permanent cuts, after learning that a 1986 voter-approved law could trigger $3.5 billion in tax refunds by the end of the year.
Legislative leaders say they plan to revisit the tax relief once they understand the impact of tax refunds’ impact on state finances.
Because Democratic legislative leaders have pushed their deliberations on other major bills into the final hours of the legislative calendar, Baker will have the final say on any legislation passed over the weekend.
That’s because Democrats can’t use their supermajority to override potential Baker vetoes. They’ll have to wait until January to sort out anything he changes in the bills.
Lawmakers can still vote on bills in informal sessions after July 31, but they lack sufficient numbers to challenge any vetoes or amendments. Moreover, the debate on legislation addressed in informal sessions can be blocked by the objections of any legislator.
Massachusetts was also the latest state to pass a budget, sending the $47.2 billion spending plan to Baker three weeks into the fiscal year on July 1.
The legislative deadlock fueled criticism of Beacon Hill’s penchant for leaving major bills to the final days of its two-year session.
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, said lawmakers would have done a lot more in the past two years had they held more formal sessions to debate and take action on pending legislation.
“If we get paid as full-time legislators, we should be working full-time,” Mirra said. “They shouldn’t hand it over at the end of the session. That’s wrong.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]