Velis opposes abortion measure because it’s in state budget bill

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

  • State Sen. John Velis listens to testimony during a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/26/2020 4:44:08 PM

HOLYOKE — As the state House and Senate head into conference committee to hash out their differences over the state budget, an amendment likely to survive that process would codify abortion laws in the state and expand access to abortion.

Amendments already adopted by the House and Senate mirror language from legislation called the ROE Act. If passed, they would allow abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases of “lethal fetal anomalies” and would would lower the age at which a person could get an abortion without parental permission from 18 to 16.

Many local lawmakers have voiced strong support for the ROE Act amid uncertainty over abortion rights at the federal level with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. One local lawmaker, however, state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, joined the Senate’s four Republicans and two other Democrats in voting against the abortion access amendment, which passed 33-7.

In a phone interview Monday, Velis said that his vote was based on “process.” He described himself as pro-choice, but said he objected to the Senate voting on policy amendments as part of the budget debate.

“Anything that did not involve the budget, I voted against,” Velis said. “With the hope and the understanding that these are all things that could be taken up in a standalone bill.”

For his votes during the 2017-2018 legislative session, the group NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts gave Velis a B rating on their reproductive freedom scorecard. The group, which lists the ROE Act as a top priority, has yet to release its scorecard for the 2019-2020 session.

For that same legislative session, the anti-abortion group Massachusetts Citizens for Life listed Velis as “pro-life,” but for the current legislative session the group has reversed that determination and listed him as pro-choice.

The ROE Act bill was filed this session, but had not yet made it out of committee. With time running out in the legislative session, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka voiced their support for including language from the bill in a budget amendment. That was despite party leadership having previously voiced opposition to policy proposals in the budget process.

That is what Velis — a more conservative Democrat and former state representative who flipped a longtime Republican district in a special election in May — said he opposed.

“You can’t say no policy and then make exceptions for policy that you do want to see passed,” Velis said.

Because it’s an amendment to the budget, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker could use his line-item veto power to strike it, though Democrats do have veto-proof supermajorities in both the state House and Senate.

One of the amendment’s supporters in the state Senate was Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. She said she’s hopeful the amendment will survive deliberations in conference committee. Whatever budget emerges from that process will receive a simple yes-or-no vote from lawmakers on the floor.

“This is a particular commitment on the part of the Senate president and the House speaker, so I have faith,” Comerford said.

Currently, the Roe. v. Wade Supreme Court decision protects abortion access in Massachusetts, as does a separate decision by the state’s highest court. However, with the confirmation of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Comerford said the court lurched to the right.

“It’s clear that women’s rights are significantly challenged,” Comerford said of the current makeup of the Supreme Court. So, she said, party leadership determined that they would address the issue as part of the budget process, which was one reason they had already extended the legislature’s formal session.

“I get the confusion around it, except this is a very nontraditional time in the Commonwealth and I appreciated the opportunity to not let this bill die this session only to be brought back,” Comerford said. That would have delayed the bills passage by at least six months, she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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