Can’t the Massachusetts House and Senate just get along?
As legislative business wound down in 2005, the buzz on Beacon Hill had Senate president Robert Travaglini (D-Boston) and his colleagues growing frustrated with the slow pace set by Travaglini’s House counterpart, Speaker Sal DiMasi (D-Boston). And while the new year is still young, there are fresh signs of friction, especially in the debate over how to extend health care to the state’s uninsured. DiMasi wants to impose an employer mandate, which would tax employers who don’t cover their workers. But Travaglini, along with Governor Mitt Romney, thinks such a step would be economically foolhardy.
The battle seems to be escalating. Just last week, three key senators — Richard Moore, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care financing; Senate Ways and Means chair Therese Murray; and Minority Leader Brian Lees — pointedly questioned the House’s approach in a letter released to the media. It was a striking show of brinksmanship, and a possible sign that things are about to get ugly.
Unless, of course, they don’t. Yes, relations between the Senate and House appear to be somewhat tense, especially with health care dominating the legislative agenda. But the fact remains that, more than at any other point in recent memory, the Massachusetts House and Senate share a common vision for state government. The old model for legislative relations — in which the conservative House acted as a fiscal and social brake on the more liberal Senate — is fast becoming obsolete. Instead, the two chambers seem broadly united by a kind of pragmatic progressive ethos. Consider the following:
The Cultural Facilities Fund is about to become a reality. First proposed by Speaker DiMasi when the House’s economic-stimulus package was released last August, the fund would direct $500 million into the state’s artistic and cultural organizations over the next decade, using a mixture of public and private funds, and without incurring any new cost to taxpayers (See "A Bold Proposal," Editorial, August 5, 2005). The Senate’s economic-stimulus plan, which was released later in the fall, includes a Cultural Facilities Fund proposal that is virtually indistinguishable from that put forward by the House.
Much work still needs to be done to reconcile the Senate’s stimulus package, which totals nearly $500 million, with the House’s, which has a relatively modest $336 million price tag. Barring a shocking last-minute twist, however, the Cultural Facilities Fund will be part of whatever package the legislature sends to Governor Romney later this year.
Syringe legalization is moving forward. Massachusetts is currently one of just three states in which syringes aren’t available for over-the-counter purchase at pharmacies, a situation that has helped make HIV and hepatitis-infection rates higher than they might otherwise be (See " Sticking point ," November 11, 2005). Efforts to change the status quo went nowhere when Tom Finneran, a staunch social conservative, ran the House. But last November, the House approved a bill that would legalize syringe sales and decriminalize syringe possession in a lopsided 115-37 vote.