It’s so common on Beacon Hill in even numbered years, it’s nearly tradition: the last-minute rush by lawmakers to pass a raft of lingering bills before formal lawmaking ends July 31. But this year, the simultaneous health, economic, and racial justice crises have made the late-session crush like no other.
The Massachusetts Legislature has yet to pass an annual budget for the current fiscal year, one of its primary constitutional responsibilities. A sweeping economic development bill is burbling in the background. Legislation raising more than $600 million in new taxes for transportation appears dead, but a $17 billion bill to borrow money for it is not.
And a recently emerging item on the agenda — to tighten accountability of police — has broad support on Beacon Hill, but a final bill remains tied up in the legislative process.
Absent a vote extending the formal session, state legislators have just 18 days to plow through this unprecedented to-do list, and more.
“In my 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said state Representative Ronald Mariano, the House’s majority leader. “You can think of all the major stuff [left to do]. The problem is all of them have some cost associated with it — and we don’t have any money. You can’t carry out that intellectual exercise knowing you don’t have the money.”
At the same time, lawmakers are tinkering with a $1 billion-plus COVID spending bill, a version of which ping-ponged back Monday from the House to the Senate. High-profile priorities, such as housing and health care, may also veer dramatically from the more sweeping plans lawmakers envisioned months before the pandemic landed, should they emerge at all.
Legislative leaders have had private discussions about whether, and how, they can give themselves more time to pass it all, a rare consideration even for a body known to regularly suspend its own rules.
That could include extending the legislative session past July 31 or threading a special session into the political calendar, when lawmakers face reelection this fall.
“There shouldn’t be any question about extending the session,” said state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus with Representative Jack Patrick Lewis. The group is also urging legislative leaders to consider raising taxes or fees to avoid deep cuts, particularly to education. “I think it’s a perfectly good rule in normal times: that we finish before campaign season is hot and heavy. But we are not in normal times.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement Monday that the House plans to tackle a series of bills “in the coming weeks,” including policing reform, health care, climate change, economic development, and what he called “budgetary matters.”
He also pointed to other bills that have passed the House but remain in the Senate, including a $1.3 billion bill that would create grants aimed at climate resiliency and another requiring the state’s child welfare system to report more data.
The Senate, meanwhile, has passed its own collection of climate change bills, plus three separate health care bills since last year, though it remains unclear what aspects could ultimately emerge in the House or get to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk. (One Senate bill would require insurance companies to continue covering telemedicine, a concept Mariano said the House could pursue.)
And in a sign of the pile of work still ahead, the House and Senate are not engaged in any conference committees, the six-person negotiation sessions that help broker the final versions of complicated legislation. Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a statement the Legislature’s “timeline is far from over.”
Both chambers appear to be keen on passing an economic development bill, a version of which was reported out of a key legislative committee on Monday, weeks after Baker filed his own reworked, $275 million version in late June. Mariano said a provision legalizing and taxing sports betting would also “probably” be included in the House’s package, potentially giving oxygen to an issue that’s long stalled.
Many of the legislative discussions come down to money. Nearly two weeks into the fiscal year, the state is leaning on a temporary $5.25 billion budget to keep state government functioning, and legislative leaders say they remain handcuffed by two considerations, among many. They face unpredictable tax revenues as the state eases through Baker’s reopening plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic and questions of whether Congress will pass a bill seeding state and local governments with more funds. Without the latter, officials warn, deep cuts could be used to offset a potential multibillion dollar state budget gap.
Senate leaders last week indicated there’s little appetite for exploring major tax increases amid the economic turnout after it swore off raising the gas tax amid other proposals baked into a House transportation financing bill passed in early March.
“You’re not going to see anything like that out of the Senate this session,” Senator Joseph Boncore told the Globe.
At the same time, local officials are urging the Legislature to spare cities and towns painful cuts to direct aid, particularly as districts are still determining how, or whether, they’ll physically reopen schools this fall.
Time, too, is a factor: The later cuts hit municipalities in the budget cycle, the harder they’re felt.
“I think communities have the flexibility to have, as the Legislature has done in the past, two or three months of temporary budgets,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents the state’s 351 cities and towns. “But after that, what the actual service level that will be provided for the year becomes a more challenging question.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a bill targeting policing in Massachusetts, spurred in recent weeks by the demonstrations against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
The Senate passed a version of the legislation early Tuesday, and Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation to create a system for licensing police officers and stripping them of their certification for misconduct.
The House, too, has committed to passing a bill, but DeLeo said Monday it won’t come before the House holds a public hearing, perhaps as early as this week.
The truncated, and complicated, discussion around increasing accountability on police has already hit snags. Before it began in earnest Monday, debate in the Senate was delayed on three successive days by Republican Senator Ryan C. Fattman, who used parliamentary tactics to table the bill while criticizing what he said was its rushed passage.
Focus quickly turned to the provision aimed at qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that bars government officials, including police officers, from being held personally responsible for monetary damages in civil lawsuits. The original version of the Senate bill sought to curtail it by setting a higher bar: An officer’s action would only get immunity if “no reasonable defendant could have reason to believe that such conduct would violate the law.”
Police unions have railed against the measure, while Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Elizabeth Warren took the rare step of weighing in on state policy, publicly urging senators in recent days to pass it.
It quickly created a linear debate: How much should legislators try to tackle as the clock dwindles?
“There are more things that we know need to be done,” said Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and former chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which has urged legislative leaders to focus on what it called its “core priorities” on the police legislation, including the certification system and retooling standards on use of force.
“We can’t tackle 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in four weeks,” Holmes said. “That’s not possible.”