Denise McWilliams, AIDS Action’s director of policy and legal affairs, resolutely offers a glass-half-full take on the situation. “Although I’m disappointed with the amount of time that’s gone by since the House voted on it — in particular, looking at the cost in terms of human lives and human health — I do expect there to be a vote in the next six to seven weeks,” she told the Phoenix. “And I do expect it to be a vote in favor of the bill.”
Maybe so. But a continued wait will lead to more missed opportunities to prevent infection. There’s also a risk that the pharmacy-access bill will get lost in the shuffle as the legislature scrambles to wrap things up by July 30, when its current biennial session ends. After all, there’s no shortage of other business to attend to. In addition to the long-awaited economic-stimulus package, a supplemental state budget and welfare reform, both launched in 2005, are still on the table with a host of other bills, and the next round of budget deliberations have already started in earnest. Plus, Travaglini just unveiled an expansive new family-leave proposal that’s certain to engender lively debate.
What’s more, it’s an election year, and legalizing syringes is politically risky. The Senate may be holding off for political reasons: signatures from would-be legislative candidates are due at the beginning of May, and Democratic senators running for re-election will be more likely to support the measure if they know they’re not facing a strong Republican challenger. The flip side, of course, is that as Election Day draws closer, it will be harder for incumbents with challengers to take a controversial stand.
Historical foot tapping
At this point, the 2005–2006 legislative session is on pace to be the least efficient — in terms of the absolute number of bills passed — of any in recent memory. As of April 15, 64 new bills had been passed and signed into law, compared with 72 in 2004, 92 in 2002, 67 in 2000, and 78 in 1998.
What these numbers don’t capture, obviously, is the substantive and symbolic importance of the new health-care-reform law. “The fact that Massachusetts passed landmark health-care reform is an enormous accomplishment,” argues Noah Berger, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Public Policy Center. “To the extent that they didn’t get other things done, at least it was because they were doing something important.” But Berger is also quick with a caveat: “Having said that, there are several months left in the session — and it’s important that they do address other critical issues in that remaining time.”
Perhaps they will. A House source characterizes negotiations on the supplemental budget and economic-stimulus bill as extremely fluid, and says both could be passed as soon as this week. Then again, House Ways and Means chair Bob DeLeo has also been urging representatives to pull their individual requests from these bills and add them to the full budget now being debated by the House — a signal that these two bills might actually be dead in the water.