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Massachusetts lawmakers discuss how, or if, the state should respond to Russia's war in Ukraine

Demonstrators gather in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on Feb. 24, 2022, in support of Ukraine.
File photo
State House News Service
Demonstrators gather in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on Feb. 24, 2022, in support of Ukraine.

The fairly routine business of reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of the midyear spending bill will commence this week. As part of that, lawmakers will come to terms with Russian divestment and resettling refugees, initiatives funded only in the Senate bill. House lawmakers didn't include funding for those initiatives.

State House News Service reporter Matt Murphy explains how contentious negotiations could likely be.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: The House went first in this process and a lot has happened with the war in Ukraine and elsewhere, and there's money to go around. So, you could see them coming to some sort of compromise on the refugee resettlement money pretty quickly.

The issue of Russian divestment is interesting. This is a large spending bill with a lot of money for things like COVID response. It authorizes outdoor dining to continue. But this issue of Russian divestment was tacked on by the Senate after the House said no.

What's interesting here, is the Senate found a way to more narrowly tailor some of the proposals that we have seen to this point. This is very specifically directing the pension fund to withdraw money from companies that have been either sanctioned by the United States, or companies that are incorporated in Russia. We know that right now there are no investments in any sanctioned companies. And the holdings that the pension fund has, are pretty limited, but there was some concern about what some of the other proposals might have done for global companies, like Marriott and Starbucks. Should the state divest from those? This proposal answers that question, which could help smooth the path forward.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: A push to suspend the state gas tax for a period of time to provide some relief to drivers in Massachusetts, failed for the second time in the Massachusetts Senate. Why did these proposals fail here, in Massachusetts, when similar suspensions of gas taxes seem to be passing across the country, including in Connecticut?

Politically, this seemed like a very popular idea and an easy one. But it's one that has really struggled to gain traction with Democrats, in particular the Democratic leaders.

One thing that I'm not entirely clear on, is how other states handle their gas tax money. I know in Massachusetts this money doesn't go straight to the general fund. It is sectioned off and it goes to a fund specifically used for state transportation projects, to finance borrowing for infrastructure. This was used by leaders as a reason not to suspend the gas tax because this money has been put up as a revenue stream for people who purchase the state debt to finance these long-term projects.

The other thing that we heard, particularly in the Senate, from people like Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues last week, that this money is not a sure bet to go back into the pockets of drivers if they were to suspend the tax. Twenty-four cents does not necessarily have to come straight off the top of the price of a gallon of gas. And they're worried that big oil companies would just pocket these proceeds and continue to charge high prices at the pump.

That was so interesting when he said he didn't trust them to pass on the savings to consumers. Is this settled now? It probably won't come up again?

At this point, it looks like it doesn't have much of a future, even though we heard Governor Baker seemed to warm to it late last week as he looked at states like Connecticut, even in New Hampshire, where Governor Sununu has spoken encouragingly about doing something similar there. He worried about drivers, particularly on the borders, facing a choice between going to a Massachusetts business, or one across state lines, but with the House and Senate both on record against this, it's very difficult to see this moving forward.

And finally, there is $9.5 billion coming in federal infrastructure money earmarked to come to Massachusetts. One project that needs an infusion of funding is East-West Rail. The state transportation department says federal funding will be crucial to that project linking Boston to Pittsfield. Matt, is it a safe bet to think that with all that money coming to the state, now, is going to be east west rails, make or break moment?

Yes. It's certainly a big moment for the future of that project. Congressman Neal has talked about getting this funding for Massachusetts with an eye on the East-West Rail project and what it could mean for advancing that. And we know that some studies have put some pretty astronomical price tags on this project, some $2 to $4 billion. Any time you get a chance to grab on to some of the federal money in the size of the sums that are being floated around the state will want to compete for it if they want to move forward with the East-West Rail. But that's not the only thing going on with this project.

The governor spoke about how he's negotiating with CSX, the company that owns a lot of the rails between Worcester, Springfield, Pittsfield, Albany. These negotiations are ongoing over rights of way, and the use of these tracks for potential extension of passenger rail service. And so, if that is the route they want to go, and they don't want to build a new track altogether, these negotiations are also important (as well as) the governor noting that he feels positive about the direction they're moving. They're not moving quickly, he said, and probably not as fast as some people would like, but he does like the direction they're headed.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.