By Christian M. Wade
BOSTON — Reducing MassHealth costs, easing drug sentences and responding to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies top the agenda for the Democratic-controlled Legislature as it gets back to work.
Lawmakers returned to Beacon Hill this week, following an August recess, with a full agenda ahead of them and facing criticism that they’ve done little work so far this legislative session.
One of the Legislature’s first actions of the two-year session that got underway in January was overriding Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of an $18 million pay raise bill for lawmakers, state judges and other elected officials.
They also made controversial changes to a voter approved marijuana law, and passed a $40 billion state budget after tacking on tens of millions of dollars in earmarks and rejecting Baker’s proposal to reduce the costs of MassHealth.
Meanwhile, thousands of bills sit in legislative committees awaiting review. The Joint Committee on the Judiciary alone has nearly 800 bills pending action.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has said he wants to address criminal justice in coming months, focusing on keeping ex-convicts out of jail through programs such as drug courts and training, which lessen the chance of people returning to prison.
A report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which conducted a year-long review of the Massachusetts system, calls for incentives such as earned time off sentences and opportunities for prisoners to participate in programs to help them reintegrate into society, such as training and substance abuse counseling. It also suggests hiring more probation officers and focusing on ex-convicts who are most likely to commit new crimes.
In 2013, Massachusetts incarcerated 242 adults per 100,000 residents – a lower rate than any state but Maine. But more than 40 percent of prisoners who are released return to prison within three years, according to state data.
Criminal justice advocates want lawmakers to focus on keeping people out of jail in the first place by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
The “justice reinvestment act,” backed by more than 40 lawmakers, calls for myriad sentencing reforms. It would allow certain low-level felonies — including petty theft, shoplifting and some drug charges — to be reduced to misdemeanors.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and other top law enforcement officials have pushed back against some of the proposals and are likely to do so again. Easing drug laws, prosecutors say, will hamstring their ability to arrest and prosecute narcotics traffickers.
Tougher sentencing laws, law enforcement experts say, also deter violent crime.
“That one is going to be a big fight,” said state Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, who sits on several committees that will review the bills. “We need to make reforms but we’re also in the midst of an opioid epidemic and can’t afford to ease sentencing laws for drug traffickers.”
State Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said one way to tackle recidivism is by expanding treatment options for people serving sentences on drug crimes.
“We know that so many of the people in our jails have high rates of addiction,” she said. “So should they be in jail or treatment?”
Reducing costs to the state’s Medicaid programs is also high on the legislative agenda.
Before the August recess, lawmakers rejected Baker’s package of MassHealth reforms, including a proposal to move about 140,000 people with incomes higher than the federal poverty level out of MassHealth and into subsidized insurance plans offered through the state’s Health Connector.
Baker, a former health care executive, said the reforms were needed to offset the skyrocketing cost of covering private sector workers who’ve signed up for government-backed health insurance.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate rejected the plan, saying the changes would eliminate benefits for hundreds of thousands of people, and that more time is needed to review the proposals.
State leaders are under growing pressure to bring down costs at MassHealth, which covers more than 1.9 million people and consumes roughly 40 percent of the state’s $40.2 billion annual budget.
MassHealth spending grew 4.6 percent to $16.1 billion from 2014 to 2015, according to the latest data from the Center for Health Information and Analysis. The low-income insurance plan is jointly funded by the state and federal governments.
State Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, said it’s now up to Democrats to come up with a plan to scale back health care spending.
“MassHealth consumes 40 percent of the budget, which means less money for schools and everything else,” he said. “We can’t ignore this any longer.”
Lawmakers also will take up proposals to strengthen — or curtail — how much the state cooperates with President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Baker has filed legislation that would authorize state and local police to honor detainer requests by immigration agents that are accompanied by warrants for people “who pose a threat to public safety.”
His bill is the latest response to a ruling by the state’s highest court striking down a policy that allowed police to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lyons and other Republicans have filed a similar bill allowing police to detain immigrants suspected of living illegally in the United States, with or without a federal warrant.
Immigrant advocates and some Democrats are criticizing both proposals, saying they will erode trust between police and immigrant communities.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing a plan to declare Massachusetts a “sanctuary state” that bars local police from detaining people suspected of living illegally in the U.S.
Several communities — including Boston, Lawrence and Salem — have passed ordinances restricting local officers from cooperating with federal agents in certain situations.
Lawmakers are also expected to delve back into the current year’s budget by debating whether to override some of Baker’s vetoes to the spending package.
Baker cut $320 million from the fiscal 2018 spending plan, including more than $42 million in earmarks for local projects tacked on to the budget by lawmakers.
Locally cuts included $50,000 that would have been spent on municipal technology improvements in Danvers; $50,000 for Halibut Point State Park in Rockport; $75,000 to Grace Center Inc. in Gloucester for a program to help the homeless; $50,000 for the Bradford rail trail in Haverhill; and $300,000 for the Haverhill school district.
Additionally, tourism officials want lawmakers to restore $2 million that Baker cut from regional councils that use the money on advertising to promote the state. That includes $200,000 cut from the Maria Miles Visitor Center in Salisbury.
Anne Marie Casey, executive director of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she’s had to lay off staff and cut hours to compensate for state cuts.
The money is vital to selling the state as a destination, she said.
“It helps drive our economic growth,” Casey said. “If we don’t sell the state, people will just go somewhere else.”
Still, any money that lawmakers put back in the budget will be tempered by lower-than-expected growth in sales and income-related taxes in recent months.
“The money is tight,” said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers. “So we need to be cautious about spending.”