By Michael Norton, Andy Metzger and Mike Deehan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Democrats in the Legislature have made progress towards resolving long-standing differences on welfare reform, veterans benefits and drug compounding industry regulation bills, but have been unable to achieve consensus after months of deliberations, according to legislative leaders.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters late Monday that he stays in touch with negotiators on the six-member conference committees, which were formed last November after the House and Senate approved differing bills to address the issues, seemingly putting themselves in prime position to score major policy achievements. But with spring around the corner, last year's legislative priorities remain incomplete as budget season is heating up.
"I keep in contact with the various chairs of the committees. They tell me there's some discussions back and forth. They just haven't been able to put it over the goal line," DeLeo said.
>>> For video of DeLeo's comments, go to http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-03-10deleo/ <<<
In a letter on Thursday, Senate Republicans said the 37-1 vote by the Senate last June and the unanimous House vote last November reflected "overwhelming support" in both branches for welfare reforms and "demonstrated the importance of this issue to our members and our constituents." Calling for a prompt meeting of the conferees, Senate Republicans said the welfare conference committee had only met once since being convened in November.
After leaving a meeting with DeLeo, Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick, the chairmen of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees said they were in negotiations.
"Why would they say something like that?" asked Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) when told about the letter. He said, "Chairman Dempsey and I are going to work on things right now, even as we speak."
Brewer and House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey are involved in several conference committees, each of which include two Democrats and one Republican from both the House and Senate.
"We need to talk about all of the issues," said Dempsey (D-Haverhill).
While included by many lawmakers as a press release talking point, welfare system reforms remain an elusive goal.
Dempsey and Leominster Democrat Sen. Jennifer Flanagan were charged last November with developing a consensus welfare reform bill after the House and Senate passed proposals aimed at weeding out fraud in electronic benefits and helping those in need to become economically self-sufficient. A network of groups who advocate for low-income individuals last year ripped reform plans as unnecessarily restrictive and onerous for recipients.
DeLeo said he had not seen the letter from Senate Republicans.
"These are all important issues," DeLeo said, "I can't think of one issue I mean obviously the veterans issue, the compounding issue has been one of the major issues affecting us obviously. Welfare reform and now we've got a big supp we really have to address too."
The drug compounding industry regulation has also disappeared from the Beacon Hill radar into the darkness of conference committee talks, which lawmakers choose to conduct in secret.
Last October, when the Senate passed its compounding bill, Senate President Therese Murray was among the many lawmakers who touted the importance of passing new laws in the wake of the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak that was traced back to a Framingham drug compounding lab in 2012.
"The devastating meningitis outbreak harmed individuals and families across the country and it's critical that we take the necessary steps in Massachusetts to evaluate our oversight and regulation policies regarding compounding pharmacies," Murray said in a statement last October. "This bill provides stricter rules and practices to protect the public's health and will help prevent a similar tragic situation from happening in the future."
The House and Senate have also asked conference committees to work out bills addressing mercury recycling, election reforms, and a mid-year spending bill, which building insiders often call a "supp" or supplemental budget.
DeLeo said he believes all the bills before conference committees will be approved before the end of formal sessions in late July. Murray said she thought the conferences were making progress.
"Yeah, I think so," Murray said.
The issues dividing House and Senate negotiators "are being at least diminished to a select few" through the process, DeLeo said.