House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said this morning that the House will end its legislative session today without taking up two key issues, education reform and changes to the state’s criminal records laws, a decision that is frustrating Governor Deval Patrick’s efforts to move the legislation along.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo
In addition, lawmakers today plan to ignore the governor’s budget decisions on some of the most controversial items, including cuts to the probation department, the Quinn bill for police officers, and the Legislature’s own multi-million dollar account.
The Legislature also will not give Patrick the expanded budget-cutting powers that he asked for to help close a $600 million budget gap, according to a House source.
Today is the final day of the legislative session, closing an extraordinary year that has seen House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi resign and face federal indictment, an unpopular sales tax hike, along with a series of reforms to the state's ethics, pension, and transportation laws.
Patrick this morning urged the Legislature to extend its stay on Beacon Hill so lawmakers can complete work on an education reform bill that would allow the state to compete for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money.
But House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said that while he wanted to improve education, there was not enough time for the House to properly consider the bill and the chamber would take the legislation up again when formal sessions resume in January.
"I believe it would be a disservice to the Members of the House and, most importantly, to the students and families of the Commonwealth to attempt to consider this bill at today's session," he said in a letter to House members.
The Senate passed a version of the bill last night. According to legislative rules, the formal session is scheduled to end today and will not begin again until the New Year. Applications for the federal grant money are due in mid-January.
"I talk to the Speaker every day, and I am frankly not hopeful that they are going to deal with this before the end of today," Patrick said at the Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston whose students are top performers in MCAS tests. "I am frustrated by that. I am going to continue to press that point."
Patrick continued, "It is a little frustrating to me that this has waited to the last minute. I would like to see the House, and indeed the Legislature, stay in session and finish this. If that means suspending the rules, so be it."
Asked why the education bill could not wait until when the session begins again next year, Patrick said progress has been stifled for too long for students of color, those in poverty, those with special needs and those for whom English is a second language.
“The problem is we’ve been waiting for than a decade,’’ Patrick said. “We are talking about our kids who have been stuck in this achievement gap for well nigh too long.’’
The bill passed last night by the Senate "strikes the right balance between respecting collective bargaining rights and focusing where the focus ought to be, which is on children," Patrick said.
DeLeo said that the House would continue to mull the legislation through the end of the year and told members to expect debate on the bill in January before the Jan. 19 grant application deadline. "This course, which gives us sufficient time to complete our work while not endangering our grant application, will be of far greater benefit to the Bay State than if we were to attempt to unnecessarily rush the bill through for the sake of political expediency," he said in his letter.
"The House is dedicated to improving education for all Massachusetts students and will ultimately join with the Governor and our colleagues in the Senate to make timely and significant changes to our educational system without jeopardizing the excellence that characterizes so many of our public schools," he said.
Backers of the bill called it the most sweeping education overhaul in more than 15 years. The measure would give the state and local school districts more authority in intervening in underperforming schools, create a system for specialized schools in local districts, and effectively double the number of charter school seats that can be located in underperforming districts.
State Senator Robert A. O’Leary, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the package a merger of several administration proposals into one "bill on steroids."
Meanwhile, the Medical Security Trust Fund, the pool of money that helps laid-off workers pay for health insurance, will run out of money in December without emergency measures, according to state officials.
Patrick has requested a $30 million cash infusion from the Legislature that would keep health insurance benefits flowing to thousands of residents for the next several months. State lawmakers are scheduled to vote on Patrick's request today to transfer the money from the state's General Fund.
Last month, state officials disclosed that they have been considering a number of emergency measures to keep the 20-year-old Medical Security Program afloat, including imposing higher costs on the unemployed and raising fees on employers, to close a gap that could exceed $50 million by April.
The health insurance program, which is funded solely by a tax on employers, helps middle-income people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and other state-subsidized health care programs designed for the poor. Since January, enrollment in the program has doubled, the state said, to roughly 34,000 people.
The program’s finances have been strained by both the number of unemployed and the length of time many people have been out of work. Before the recession, laid-off workers were allowed to collect unemployment benefits for up to 30 weeks in Massachusetts, but as the downturn dragged on, Congress increased that period to beyond 90 weeks.
Those extensions have drained about $60 million from the Medical Security Trust Fund since July 2008, the state said.
Kay Lazar and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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