There was a strange scene at the State House on Tuesday night: Everywhere you looked, people were passing bills.
Suddenly, an institution that often drawls howls of protest for its grindingly slow approach to legislating looked like the most productive workplace in America.
Pages in blue jackets darted through the marble halls, shuttling papers between the House and Senate. Lobbyists swarmed the chamber doors, buttonholing lawmakers. And legislators voted on bill after bill, as they scrambled to get as much done as possible before their two-year legislative session ended just after midnight.
In their final day of formal lawmaking, House and Senate members rushed 32 bills to Governor Deval Patrick’s desk — 14 of them in the two hours before the last gavel banged in the Senate at 12:33 a.m. Wednesday.
Those bills ranged from the momentous — such as a 349-page, first-in-the nation plan to cut health care costs, unveiled the night before it was voted on — to the monotonous, such as H4341, which transfers control of an acre of parkland from the state to the town of South Hadley.
The legislative bustle was quite a shift from the first seven months of the year, when lawmakers worked at a much slower (they prefer the term “deliberative”) pace and approved about 140 bills.
House Republican leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. said he does not like waiting until the last minute to make laws, but the final day of the session just seems to spur lawmakers into action.
“Unfortunately, I know that’s the dynamic that forces people to reach consensus,” he said just after the House session ended at 12:06 a.m. “Nothing like a deadline.”
Representative Steven L. Levy, a Marlborough Republican, said he supported many of the bills that sailed through Tuesday night but did not like “this mad rush at the end.”
“Why can’t we just have a steady stream of bills moving through the legislative process and being addressed and voted on their merits?” he said. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Jones said he is not sure lawmakers will ever tackle major bills earlier in the session.
“I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the Legislature, or just human nature,” he said. “It’s sort of like back in high school, it was like, ‘Argh, that deadline is coming up, I’ve got to start that term paper,’ and if you go in the next day and the teacher says you’ve got an extra week, you automatically move up everything another week.”
The State House scramble produced some grumbling among members, mostly Republicans. They complained that legislators had to vote on the novel-length health care bill just 16 hours after it was released from committee.
“Anyone saying they read it [before] voting on it is lying!” Levy tweeted from the House floor Tuesday afternoon.
‘Unfortunately, I know that’s the dynamic that forces people to reach consensus. Nothing like a deadline.’
Many bills approved Tuesday night were mundane measures transferring control of land from one public entity to another, all of which required roll call votes. Lawmakers had to rush those through because they will not meet in formal session again until January.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo defended the Legislature’s last dash. He pointed proudly to the passage of controversial crime legislation barring parole for certain repeat offenders, as well as the health care bill and energy and economic stimulus measures.
“What we’ve been able to accomplish the last day has just been outstanding,” he said at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. “If we could compare what we’ve done in two days with what other legislatures may have done in the past year, I like our chances of, in terms of what we’re able to accomplish, more than any others.”
Patrick now has 55 bills on his desk. The details of some of them began to emerge as daylight broke Wednesday and tired staffers sorted through the fine print.
A transportation bond bill enacted just after midnight will make the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the private board that oversees the ribbon of parks in downtown Boston, subject to open-meeting and public records laws. The board had been criticized for its lack of transparency.
Lawmakers also overhauled the Child in Need of Services system, which helps parents handle children who regularly run away from home or disobey rules. The legislation calls for more counseling to keep young people out of the court system.
A measure that would lease Daly Field in Brighton to Simmons College was also approved. Simmons plans to refurbish the dilapidated field on the Charles River. But critics say teams from Simmons and local schools will get so much playing time, the general public will be all but shut out.
On Thursday, Patrick is expected to sign a bill updating animal control laws. Later that day or Friday, he could sign the habitual offender legislation. The governor was a reluctant supporter of that bill, arguing it does not give judges enough discretion in sentencing, and his office did not say whether he would sign it privately or hold a ceremony.
Patrick has said he is eager to put his signature on the sweeping bill to control health care costs, which was his top priority.
He has not set a date for that signing, although it is almost certain to come with some pomp. When Governor Mitt Romney signed the state’s universal health insurance law in 2006, he held a gala ceremony at Faneuil Hall, complete with a fife-and-drum corps dressed in tricorn hats and breeches.Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.