The Massachusetts Legislature is staring down a dwindling clock — and a strengthening gubernatorial check.
Absent a rare decision to suspend their own rules and extend the formal legislative session, state lawmakers are effectively empowering Governor Charlie Baker and his veto pen in crafting what becomes law and what doesn’t in the coming weeks.
Formal lawmaking on Beacon Hill is set to end on July 31, giving the Democratic-led House and Senate, for now, a hard deadline to complete and send to Baker any number of complicated bills, including still-in-the-works legislation tightening accountability of police.
After that date, the Legislature still meets, but under its current rules, only in informal sessions, where typically minor bills pass and any dissent can block legislation.
With a pile of complex bills still on their plate, lawmakers may have their hands tied even further. Baker gets 10 days to consider any legislation that lands on his desk, meaning he can now hold onto any bill that reaches him until after formal lawmaking is scheduled to wrap up at month’s end.
He can veto a bill outright or return legislation to lawmakers with changes. But come August, the process for legislative maneuvering becomes far more complicated, given legislators need a two-thirds vote in each branch to override any veto.
They’re the type of logistical challenges that underline how even in a Legislature with a Democratic super-majority, a governor from the minority party can still wield considerable influence, especially given the time of year.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a statement Tuesday that her hope was to avoid the typical end-of-session bottleneck now facing the Legislature and is “disappointed to find ourselves in this situation again.”
But she indicated an expanded formal session is on the table as the Senate addresses a still-to-be-passed state budget, bills responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and legislation setting a target for net-zero emissions by 2050, among other things.
“If we need to work through these extraordinary circumstances to address these important issues after July 31, we will,” Spilka said. “But we should be able to complete most of this work in the timeframe we are given — and the public shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is open to “various scenarios involving going past July 31, if necessary,” and is in discussions with Spilka and House members, his office said Tuesday.
Extending formal legislative business into lawmakers’ slow season is rare.
Lawmakers work in two-year cycles, but since 1995, they’ve set limits, ending formal business by the third Wednesday in November in the first year of the two-year calendar, and July 31 in the second.
They’ve suspended that rule just three times, calling sessions in 1999, 2001, and 2005 after formal business had ended for that calendar year. But legislative officials said they aren’t aware of any instance in the last 25 years of lawmakers — who face voters every two years — doing so in an election year. The state primary this year is scheduled for Sept. 1.
Baker has used the end-of-session crunch to force changes, or kill legislation, before.
Unhappy with some aspects of a bill lawmakers passed regulating Airbnb and other short-term rentals two years ago, he amended and returned the bill to them the day after formal session ended. It wasn’t until nearly five months later that a compromise version surfaced — with a version of Baker’s suggested changed — and lawmakers quickly passed it through sparsely attended sessions.
The same year, Baker also vetoed a section of a massive economic development bill that supporters say was intended to crack down on patent trolls, effectively killing it. And he used a pocket veto in early 2019 to block a bill that would have banned certain chemical flame retardants in household goods but was passed in the waning hours of the previous session.
It’s a calculus that is already complicating what some lawmakers’ push amid the debate over policing.
Baker in mid-June released his own proposal to tighten accountability of police, which included creating a new process for licensing police and offering bonuses to officers for taking advanced training.
But the bill has been all but pushed aside in the House and Senate, replaced by hulking proposals spanning more than 80 pages apiece that both tweak Baker’s proposal for a new certification system and expand dramatically into other policy areas.
The House is scheduled to begin debating hundreds of filed amendments Wednesday, and whatever the House passes, both branches will still have to reconcile differences between the competing bills. The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus used a previously scheduled meeting with Baker on Tuesday to gauge whether he’d support a variety of provisions should they be tucked into a final version of the bill.
They included proposals making driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants (which Baker has routinely opposed) or making what representatives say would be technical fixes to the state law allowing for certain crimes to be expunged from a person’s record.
There’s already been heated debate around other provisions, including vastly different plans offered by the Senate and the House to scale back qualified immunity protections for police officers.
Baker’s office did not respond to questions Wednesday about types of provisions he would oppose if they reached his desk, but a spokesman said he “looks forward to working with the Legislature to pass this [policing] bill by the end of the session.”
“He has an over-sized role,” state Representative Russell E. Holmes said of Baker. “I want this bill signed before July 31. I don’t want this to be something that’s vetoed. Now is the time to compromise and now is the time to come to an agreement.”
Holmes said Baker reiterated his opposition to the driver’s license proposal, but indicated the governor, like many lawmakers, is still trying to fully grasp the impact of changing the state’s qualified immunity law.
“I can tell you, he’s going through the same education process” as others are, Holmes said. “We’re all still trying to get our arms around it. I think qualified immunity has been a heavy lift since the beginning.”
The policing legislation, however, is just one of many priorities still left undone in the session’s eleventh hour. Lawmakers have also discussed passing a sweeping economic development bill, and the chambers have yet to agree on major climate change or health care legislation.
Above all, there’s still no annual budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. The state is currently leaning on a temporary budget through July, and Baker on Tuesday filed another $5.51 billion placeholder bill that would keep state government funded through August.
It’s still unclear when lawmakers could release a complete budget proposal. But Baker said Tuesday that he expects his administration and the Legislature to at least outline a full-year projection for local and school aid in the “coming weeks.”