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'Ambitious' Massachusetts Budget Deadline Looms

The Massachusetts Statehouse.
Creative Commons
The Massachusetts Statehouse.

Having passed bills in both the Massachusetts House and Senate, state lawmakers are working to deliver a budget deal this week before the turkey coma sets in.

They're headed to a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the two versions. Governor Charlie Baker asked for a budget on his desk by Thanksgiving.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about the week ahead in state government, including the major differences that need to be reconciled — and whether it might really happen this week.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: This week may be a bit ambitious. The branches don't have sessions scheduled, which could signal that they don't yet think they're going to be done this week.

But they do hope to be done possibly by the end of the month, if not in early December. And these budgets started out very close, in hopes of achieving that.

One thing that was added to both budgets, that both seem in agreement, is this expansion of abortion access in Massachusetts.

This is a provision known as the ROE Act. It would allow for abortions after 24 weeks, in cases where a fetal abnormality is diagnosed after 24 weeks.

What we saw in the Senate last week, however, was that a number of additional policy measures were added to this bill that could complicate some of these talks with the House.

Those include a new fee structure on Uber and Lyft rides, an expansion of mail-in voting through at least the end of next June for all any and all state and municipal elections taking place next year, and also some directives through the MBTA — should a federal coronavirus relief package materialize — that they consider scaling back some of the proposed service reductions that we're seeing put on the table in light of their budget crunch.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: One of the amendments also included in the Senate's budget agreement earmarked $200,000 to create a new ombudsman's office for the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, which experienced a massive and fatal coronavirus outbreak in the spring. Is it likely that earmark will make it to the final budget?

We'll see how the House feels about this. We know that there has been a panel of House and Senate lawmakers holding hearings on what happened at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home looking to make legislative changes where they can. Representative Linda Campbell of Methuen, a veteran herself, is leading that effort in the House.

This budget amendment is on top of a million-dollar increase for the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Those baked into the budget allocated about $400,000 additional, $200,000 for that new ombudsman office to keep an eye on what's going on there, another $200,000 for supplies and materials and equipment that may be needed to properly care for veterans.

So this is one that I think, you know, the House could be sympathetic to, if they can find the money in their respective plans.

Lawmakers haven't yet resolved some major issues, pretty late in the year. Among them is policing reform. What's the fate of this bill and the other legislation that's been in conference committees for months?

I think a lot of people thought this would get wrapped up sooner. In particular, police reform had a lot of momentum in the summer when it passed.

There are actually five different measures currently sitting before conference committees. Sometimes these things can all come together at once. And once one agreement is reached, we may start to see the dominoes fall.

But certainly, time is running out, and that is adding to concerns that some of these things may not get done. And when you carry over into the new session, there's a fear particularly of police reform, because it's so controversial that if they miss this moment, there may not be another one like it.

COVID-19 testing sites in western Massachusetts and around the state have been super busy with long lines. Baker said he worries people are getting tested in preparation for big holiday gatherings, which he urged them not to do. What are the current state restrictions, and will officials crack down on Thanksgiving meals?

The governor says he's "scared to death" of what Thanksgiving could bring. And we won't really know, probably, for a few weeks after Thanksgiving. But the governor did not adjust the indoor gathering limits for the holidays — those remain at 10, though they have been urging people to celebrate only with the people within your household.

They've also removed the state of New Hampshire and the state of Maine from their safe travel guidelines, which means if you're traveling to New Hampshire or Maine to see family, you would need to have a test or quarantine upon return.

The same would go for family coming into Massachusetts from those states.

So, they're trying to make it a little difficult.

I don't think police are going to be knocking on people's doors and counting heads, but it's all sending a signal that they would prefer — and is the safest thing to do this year, in their opinion — would be to skip it. Hunker down, celebrate with the people you live with, and hope for a larger, more festive Thanksgiving next year.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

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.
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