The Statehouse on Beacon Hill should host plenty of spirited debates in 2017.file photoSun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
The Statehouse on Beacon Hill should host plenty of spirited debates in 2017. file photo

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

BOSTON -- In addition to the wildcard that is Donald Trump's presidency, here's a look at 11 simmering issues that could escalate to a full boil in the 2017-2018 legislative session, which gets underway today on Beacon Hill.

1. CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: Smaller prison populations and lower costs, better re-entry programs and services, and reduced recidivism rates are among the goals of criminal justice reform advocates who have seen their policy proposals wither in past sessions. Legislative leaders told Gov. Deval Patrick in 2012 that they would revisit criminal justice and sentencing reforms in the 2013-2014 session, but they didn't. The 2015-2016 session was also a wipeout for activists, who watched as policymakers and Gov. Charlie Baker punted the issues to outsiders to see if they could come up with a plan. Heading into 2017, administration officials and lawmakers are waiting to see what a special commission recommends after working with outside consultants from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. Activists pressing major reforms fear the CSG report -- scheduled to be released in mid-January -- and subsequent legislation will be narrow in scope, with a focus on probation, parole and other post-release services. Frustrated after years of being told to wait for broad reforms, advocates are gearing up to fight for other measures including bail changes, repeals of mandatory minimum sentencing and greater use of diversion programs.



HEALTH CARE: Total health-care expenditures have outpaced the state's economic-growth rate for two straight years, a significant portion of the state's population remains uninsured despite a mandatory health-insurance law, and rising premiums and access to care, including oral care, are issues for many patients. Massachusetts is also on the verge of having a staggering 2 million of its residents enrolled in Medicaid, the taxpayer-funded health-insurance program for those who are income eligible and individuals with disabilities. Amid the rollout of health-care access and cost-control laws, the market itself has undergone dramatic consolidation in recent years and there's continuing concern over the financial health of community hospitals. Medicaid is now experimenting with an accountable care payment model, with results due in 2017 that will determine how those pilots perform on cost and patient care measures. At the same time, there's talk in the Trump administration about converting Medicaid to a block grant program in an attempt to limit the flow of federal funds to the state. And a special commission looking at variations in prices charged by hospitals is closing in on possible recommendations. If it sounds like a lot, it is. Per usual, the health care policy arena in Massachusetts is active, with plenty of uncertainty.

3. ENERGY: Diversification, costs and reliability remain the legs of the state's three-legged energy policy stool. Heading into 2017, Gov. Baker and his administration are implementing a major renewable-energy law to procure large-scale hydropower and develop offshore wind farms that eventually will help power homes and businesses around the state. A big hitch is that the fruits of that labor are several years from ripening. In the meantime, expect battles to be fought along familiar lines. As the administration works to finalize a new tariff-based solar renewable energy credit program, solar advocates are pressing the Department of Energy Resources to come up with a plan to bridge the gap between January and the summer, when the new program takes effect, to keep the subsidies flowing to the industry. Caps on solar net metering are also being bumped up against in most utility territories, meaning that debate will perk up for another round early in the year. And while hydropower might eventually address some of the demand and reliability concerns in the grid, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission investigation of the ongoing maintenance issues at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station will continue to fire up Pilgrim opponents, who are pressing Baker to demand the plant's shutdown before a scheduled refueling in 2017 designed to keep the plant running until 2019. Any adjustments to the state's energy mix -- including new gas pipeline capacity -- must all be balanced against greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements and targets. Lawmakers like Rep. Jay Kaufman and Sen. Michael Barrett undoubtedly will continue to make the case for a carbon tax, but more likely is a more aggressive effort by the Baker administration to promote the purchase of electric vehicles.

4. INSTITUTIONAL RIVALRIES: The battles in the 2015-2016 session were largely between the House and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats, rather than between the Legislature and the new Republican governor. In addition to famously disagreeing about rules governing the flow of bills, the more liberal Senate was often at odds with the more moderate House.

While Gov. Baker's working relationship with legislative leaders is not likely to entirely fizzle in 2017, 2018 is an election year and Democratic legislative leaders just in December bumped heads pretty hard with the Republican governor over spending cuts they viewed as hurtful to people and unnecessary.

Democratic legislative leaders have settled their rules reform differences and have a new party chair, Gus Bickford, who is taking an aggressive posture toward Baker out of the gate. There are some Democrats who probably would be fine with Baker in the Corner Office for another four years, but many others are hoping a strong candidate will step forward to challenge the governor.

5. ETHICS REFORM: Eight years after passing a reform package strengthening ethics laws in the wake of the indictment of the former speaker on corruption charges, lawmakers plan to revisit the state's approach to conflict of interest laws. A 13-member task force led by the chairs of the House and Senate Ethics committees and the co-chairs of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight has a deadline of March 15 to produce a report reviewing conflict of interest, financial disclosure laws, and the regulations of the state Ethics Commission, which enforces state ethics laws. In February after publicizing the idea of the review of ethics laws, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it was intended "with the idea that some may be strengthened because they haven't been looked at for a period of time, some may have to be updated, again, because they haven't been looked at in a period of time, and some have to be clarified actually."

6. FULL-TIME BUDGETING: Gov. Baker will propose a fiscal 2018 budget Jan. 25, but budgeting has become a year-round necessity for Baker and the Legislature and the story is far from written yet on fiscal 2017. Legislative leaders fuming about Baker's unilateral budget cuts in December are pondering a supplemental budget to restore spending and directly challenge the governor, but their next move will depend on how revenues perform in the next month or two. Around the same time new lawmakers are getting sworn in on Wednesday, the Department of Revenue will be preparing its latest revenue report for December after mid-month collections showed positive signs with 4 percent growth.

Baker and the Legislature are under pressure from Wall Street credit-rating agencies to boost the state's rainy day fund balance and not back off its pension-funding schedule. Money saved and invested in future pension liabilities, however, is not the stuff campaigns are built on. Everyone involved in the budget-making on Beacon Hill also has to be concerned about relatively anemic tax revenue growth during an economic recovery and the state's positioning should the next economic downturn come sooner rather than later.

7. INCOME INEQUALITY: Backed by a powerful coalition of interest groups, low-income workers in recent years have racked up big wins in Massachusetts with a ballot law broadening access to earned sick time and a law increasing the minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2017. Now workers are threatening to place on the 2018 ballot a proposal to boost the wage floor to $15 an hour, which could be coupled with a constitutional amendment adding nearly $2 billion in higher taxes on households with incomes above $1 million. The issues are forcing lawmakers and voters to take sides -- with workers and tax raisers or with businesses and other opponents of new taxes. The minimum wage and income surtax loom as potentially huge policy matters on Beacon Hill and political issues in November 2018.

8. POT POLITICS: The Legislature's new Committee on Marijuana next year will jump into the debate after not one, not two, but three marijuana-related laws were placed on the books while legislators stayed on the sideline, unwilling to intervene on an issue with far-reaching societal impacts. Now that adult use of marijuana is legal, lawmakers say they want to make changes to the 2016 voter law. On Dec. 28, the Legislature rushed a bill to Gov. Baker's desk pushing back retail marijuana implementation dates by six months. Baker signed it. Other potential areas for meddling include tax rates, startup regulatory costs, edible marijuana products, marketing and advertising tactics.

9. TAXES: A riddle that has perplexed lawmakers all year -- anemic tax revenue growth amid surging job growth -- could receive an answer from the Democrat-led Legislature in the form of new taxes next session. Short-term room rentals, marijuana sales and seven-figure incomes have all emerged as likely candidates for new or increased taxes. Gov. Baker will not be able to wield his veto pen against a proposed constitutional amendment adding a 4 percent surtax to incomes over $1 million. In a 2016 joint session the House and Senate advanced the measure, which would need one more vote by the branches in constitutional convention --scheduled to begin meeting no later than Wednesday, May 10 under the current joint rules -- before potentially advancing to the 2018 ballot.

The Democrats who control the flow of business in the House and Senate have raised taxes in 2009 and 2013, and in recent weeks have refused to rule out tax hikes in 2017. Lawmakers are already making time in the first part of the two-year session to grapple with changes to the legalized marijuana sales law passed by voters, with some suggesting the 10 percent combined state sales and excise tax on pot is not high enough.

10. EDUCATION FUNDING/REFORM: Lawmakers have identified education funding reform as a priority for the upcoming session, but a combination of overspending (versus budget) and slow revenue growth leaves the question hanging as to where any new funding would come from. School aid formula changes wouldn't come cheap -- a 2015 report found the current system's starting point underestimates the cost of educating students by at least $1 billion.

A signature issue of Gov. Baker's in 2016, charter expansion was defeated on two fronts with the November ballot loss coming after the House and Senate failed to agree on an expansion bill. Baker called for a lift of the charter cap in his State of the State address last year and could use that platform in 2017 to lay out a new plan to ensure there are no gaps in education adequacy or to send a message to forces looking for major new investments. A Senate-backed plan to tie a modest charter cap lift to a big infusion of money across all public schools didn't pique interest in the House, but the distaste voters showed in November for the broader expansion favored by many representatives could change their minds. Baker has also pledged to boost education aid by the projected growth in state revenues, a promise that will be sized up when he releases his fiscal 2018 budget on Jan. 25.

11. ONLINE GAMING, LOTTERY WOES: It's been five years since lawmakers came around to embrace the idea of casino gambling as a panacea for its transportation, local aid and economic development spending desires. But apart from the trickle of slot revenues from Plainridge, that dream is still just that. MGM Springfield isn't expected to open until 2018, and Wynn Resorts won't start dealing cards until a year after that. In the meantime, the Lottery -- the state's main source of profit for local aid to cities and towns -- is showing its age, or maturity. Treasurer Deborah Goldberg testified last month that profits next year would likely fall by $3 million to $965 million. Scratch ticket sales through November were down 3 percent and the Keno market is "virtually saturated," the treasurer said. In other words Lottery revenues are slipping and casinos haven't even opened yet. Though not cataclysmic, Goldberg's forecast for a period of "stagnation" could be the potion needed to get lawmakers to come around to the idea of moving the Lottery online to reach a different, and younger, audience.