House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a dramatic move intended to "remove any distractions" from the goal of reaching a deal on an already late state budget, asked House lawmakers negotiating a bill to regulate the retail marijuana industry to suspend their talks with the Senate Wednesday night until a budget compromise can be struck.
DeLeo said he believes a budget for the fiscal year that began Saturday "can and should be sent to the Governor's desk this week."
"A key reason for our consistently high bond ratings has been our commitment to balanced, on time spending plans. In light of Standard & Poor's recent decision to downgrade Massachusetts' bond rating, we need now more than ever to get a budget done," DeLeo said.
The statement from the speaker's office was released less than an hour after the News Service reported that negotiations over the budget and marijuana regulation had become intertwined, according to State House sources close to the process, and that some feared a budget deal was being put on hold until contentious talks over pot could be resolved.
DeLeo said the House was not responsible for trying to link the two issues, but his call for the suspension of negotiations over marijuana to focus on the budget suggested at least the threat of overlap between the two ongoing conference committees with the Senate.
"The budget and marijuana negotiations were never linked by the House, nor should they be," DeLeo said. "Tying unrelated negotiations together for political leverage does a disservice to the residents of the Commonwealth. To remove any distractions, and because of the number of critical needs that hinge on our budget - particularly programs that care for the neediest among us - I have asked that the House members of the marijuana conference committee suspend negotiations until the budget is complete."
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, in a statement of his own, also denied any link between the two negotiations, and said he would prefer to continue to seek deals on marijuana and the budget without interruption.
"The mischief makers are once again at work. The Senate has not and will not link the budget and marijuana negotiations. Period. The Senate is fully committed to continuing negotiations on both the budget and marijuana legislation simultaneously," Rosenberg said.
The new fiscal year - fiscal 2018 - began on Saturday, but Massachusetts officials were able to avoid the drama of a government shutdown, the likes of which generated headlines in other states over the weekend, because they already put in place a temporary budget to cover expenses through July.
Budget negotiators, led by Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill and Sen. Karen Spilka of Ashland, have had to deal with several unusual developments this year as they work toward compromise on what could become a $40 billion spending plan for the year.
In addition to volatile tax collections that have not lived up to expectations in fiscal 2017, Gov. Charlie Baker asked the conferees mid-process to include a comprehensive MassHealth reform package in the final budget.
The proposal presented by Baker would impose new assessments on employers to help pay for Medicaid and shift hundreds of thousands of MassHealth enrollees into different plans to save money and maximize federal contributions.
Rep. Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat who co-chaired the committee that wrote the House's marijuana regulation bill, could not be reached immediately for comment Wednesday night. Cusack is one of three House lawmakers on the conference committee negotiating with the Senate over marijuana.
Just after 3 p.m., Cusack told the News Service conferees were on a short break and indicated that their discussions were going well Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Sens. Pat Jehlen and Will Brownsberger left the room where conference committee negotiations were taking place around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday evening, before the speaker's statement was released, giving no indication that they knew anything was afoot.
Asked if conferees were done for the day, Jehlen said, "We have a lot of work to do at the staff level, which they don't need us for."
Jehlen reiterated she would not speculate about the timeline of a conference report. "I continue to be amazed every single day by my experiences, so I'm not going to make any speculations," she said. Jehlen too could not be reached for comment Wendesday night on the speaker's statement.
House and Senate leaders had set a self-imposed deadline of June 30 to get a bill overhauling the 2016 marijuana legalization ballot law on the governor's desk, but remain divided, according to those close to the process, on questions of taxation and local control over the citing of retail marijuana stores.
While marijuana possession and the right to grow plants at home became legal last year, the Legislature delayed other keys aspects of the law - including the timeline to license retail stores - by six months to give lawmakers time to reconsider other elements of the law.
The self-imposed deadline that was missed last week was put in place in order to make sure that the new regulatory body, which will be known as the Cannabis Control Commission, had a full year to get up and running and begin licensing retail pot stores by July 2018.
Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Yes on 4 ballot coalition that passed the legalization law last November, issued a statement Wednesday night defending the law that voters put on the books.
"The law passed by voters in November remains on the books. It's a well-crafted, effective law. Time will determine what changes may or may not be made to that law," he said.