Recreational Marijuana, Charter Schools, Criminal Justice Reforms Among Mass. Senate Agenda for 2017

The Republican

By Shira Schoenberg

Health care costs, education, criminal justice reform, and the apartment-sharing service Airbnb will all be on the Senate agenda when the new session begins in January, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said Thursday.

Without question, lawmakers will be busy revising the marijuana legalization law that voters approved on Tuesday. But Rosenberg, in a wide-ranging discussion with Statehouse reporters, indicated that marijuana will be far from the Senate’s only priority.

“It’s going to need some concentrated attention, and it’s going to have to be done very quickly, but there are many other issues on the agenda,” Rosenberg said.

For one, the Council of State Governments Justice Center has been working with top judicial and political officials in Massachusetts on a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system, with an eye toward reducing recidivism rates. That review is expected to be completed by the end of this year, and lawmakers hope to draft legislation by January.

Another issue likely to get attention is education. Voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot question that would have expanded the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, and lawmakers are unlikely to consider any charter school expansion.

Even before the ballot question failed, the Legislature was unable to reach a compromise on lifting the current charter school cap.

But advocates on all sides of the issue say the ballot fight called attention to the problem of children stuck in failing school districts, and the need to improve education.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure to move to a discussion on education 2.0 focused on 100 percent of kids,” Rosenberg said.

That said, any discussion will be challenging. The House, Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker have been far apart in their stances on education reform. Baker is a strong charter school supporter. The House supported a lift of the charter school cap in 2014, but the Senate rejected it. During the last legislative session, the Senate released its own bill advocating more funding for public schools and reforms of charter school governance, in addition to a gradual cap lift, but the House never took up the proposal.

A report released last year identified underfunding in the formula used to calculate the amount of money the state pays for public education, but lawmakers have not done anything with the report because of a lack of money.

Rosenberg acknowledged that funding continues to be the biggest problem. “First, there’s the policy, then there’s how do you pay for it,” Rosenberg said. He suggested that lawmakers could pass a law that commits to more funding for education, then find the funding later – either through the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2018 raising the tax rate on income over $1 million or other sources.

In the short term, Rosenberg suggested lawmakers could look at the use of Horace Mann charter schools or innovation schools – both types of schools within the public school system that allow for more flexibility than traditional public schools – to help students stuck on charter school waiting lists.

On other issues, Rosenberg said the Senate has created a study group to meet with health officials in other states and try to determine why Massachusetts health care costs are so high and whether there are ways to lower costs without compromising access or quality.

Lawmakers also plan to revive discussions about how to regulate and potentially tax the so-called sharing economy. Last year, they passed rules for ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. They will now look at apartment-sharing services like Airbnb, which are beginning to compete with the hotel industry.