2017 in the Senate: Midterm Review

A guide to the Mid-session Scorecard (View Spreadsheet here, website here) -- All numbers refer to the spreadsheet.

The 190th legislative did not have a very auspicious start. Both House and Senate fast-tracked a bill to give pay increases to the Senate President, Speaker of the House, judges, the governor, and other constitutional officers; raise stipends to appointed committee chairs and select other legislative leaders; and increase the number of legislators eligible for stipends (1s). Here at Progressive Mass, we understand that it is important that elected officials be paid well for the work that they do (especially so that they don’t seek more lucrative work that leads to a host of conflicts of interest), but the bill reflected the endemic problems of Beacon Hill. It lacked any semblance of deliberative, democratic process, and its ultimate effect was to centralize power further in Leadership, creating a more hierarchical and less democratic Legislature. It also left out woefully underpaid staffers from the pay increase---and the countless workers across the Commonwealth facing stagnant and sub-livable wages. In short, we deserve better from our Legislature.

The pay raise remains the only time the Democrats of the Legislature used their overwhelming supermajority to override Governor Baker’s veto, aside from the restoration of line-item-vetoed budget programs and earmarks (most of which were, granted, worthwhile programs and earmarks).

The base of that budget also left much to be desired, as it largely continued the austerity that has been harming our ability to invest in our future. That said, several of the amendments for which we had advocated did pass unanimously (2s, 3s, 4s).

One of those amendments (4s) would have established a schedule for implementing the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which found that the Commonwealth is underestimating the cost of K-12 education by $1-2 billion each year due to outdated assumptions regarding the costs of special education and health care as well as of closing the achievement gaps for low-income students and English Language Learners. This mirrors one of our priority bills -- Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s S.223. Unfortunately, it did not make the Conference budget, although the fact that S.223 was reported out favorably by the Joint Education Committee offers hope.

Almost every single budget vote in the Senate last year was unanimous -- adding extra funding to an array of important programs and blunting the overall austerity. The one contested vote was on eliminating the use of student standardized test performance in teacher evaluations (5s). Although testing can provide valuable information to teachers and administrators, the use of student impact ratings in teacher evaluation ignores the many other factors, both individual and social, that affect a student’s performance, and creates problems in subjects where standardized tests are not given, such as in art, music, and gym.

Later in the spring, the Fair Share amendment (or “millionaire’s tax”) secured its place on the November 2018 ballot, as both houses overwhelmingly voted to support it in its second Constitutional Convention (6s). The Fair Share amendment, which would impose a 4% surtax on income above $1 million and allocate the revenue to a designated education and transportation fund, is an important start to counteracting the chronic underinvestment described above.

Speaking of ballot initiatives, the Legislature decided to rewrite Question 4, the marijuana legalization ballot initiative that passed in 2016. The Senate’s bill (unlike the House’s) and, thankfully, the final Conference Committee legislation remained faithful to the will of the voters and contained some valuable social justice and public health improvements (7s, 9s).

Criminal justice reform and health care reform dominated the rest of the session. You can read our analysis of the Senate’s criminal justice reform legislation, and the amendment votes that took place, here. These votes counted for half of the votes scored in the first half of the 190th session (13s-30s).

Unfortunately, the awareness of the importance of reducing fines and fees did not hold when the Legislature passed its “no texting while driving” bill, as senators voted down an amendment to reduce the fine scale in the bill (8s).

On the health care front, both the House and Senate beat back a terrible proposal from Governor Baker to drop more than 100,000 individuals from MassHealth and impose other restrictions on coverage (12s). Despite Baker’s claims to moderation, his proposal would make his Republican colleagues in Washington proud. Thankfully, it failed last year, but we must be vigilant because Baker has not given up hope of passing it.

During the summer, the Senate also passed the Healthy Youth Act, which requires schools that teach sex ed to uses medically accurate, age-appropriate, and comprehensive curriculum--and beat back efforts to weaken it (10s, 11s).

In the fall, the Senate passed its own version of health care reform, and although it did not go as far we would have liked (single payer, anyone?), it contained many valuable improvements -- from a public option to greater cost controls for prescription drugs and hospital bills to the authorization of dental therapists to increase access to dental care, among many other provisions that will improve the health and well-being of the Commonwealth (36s). The Senate beat back several efforts to weaken the bill (31s, 33s, 34s), but also one to improve it (32s). The bill also included a modified version of the so-called “benchmark” bill, which requires the establishment of a “single payer benchmark” and annual reports that compare the actual health care expenditures in the commonwealth for 2016, 2017, and 2018 with those under a single payer system. If the “single payer benchmark” outperforms actual costs, then the Health Policy Commission has to propose a single payer plan.

Note: If legislators were not present for a vote but submitted a letter to the Clerk about how they would have voted, we recorded the intended vote in the scorecard. Relevant references here are available upon request. If a legislator was absent but did not make his/her intent clear, that absence was scored equal to a vote against the progressive position.

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