Legislators must stay on the job

With much work left to be done, lawmakers will have to jettison the rule that spells the end of formal business on July 31.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo presided over the first session to feature legislators voting remotely.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo presided over the first session to feature legislators voting remotely.Massachusetts Legislature/File 2020

A year dominated by twin pandemics, the coronavirus and systemic racism, has challenged all of our institutions to perform in ways they never knew possible — to keep functioning and maintain public confidence under the most adverse circumstances.

With so much critical work to be done, this was no time for legislative paralysis. So the Massachusetts Great and General Court, which traces its history to colonial times, had to adapt on the fly, finding ways to remain a very public body — albeit in a closed-to-the-public State House — with Zoom hearings and remote voting.

A legislative body where members still refer to each other on the floor of the House and Senate as “the gentleman from Springfield” and “the gentlewoman from Boston,” a body with reams of arcane rules, had to jettison some of those rules to make all this work.


But the critical nature of its work means there is one more rule to be jettisoned — the one that requires that formal sessions in election years end on July 31. This year — one unlike any other — demands that lawmakers extend their session and continue the unfinished business of this Commonwealth.

The election-year rule — and it is only a rule, not one writ in any constitutional requirement — in ordinary times makes some sense. Lawmakers want to be out campaigning, and the history of post-election lame-duck sessions is not a pretty one.

Under the existing rule, the Legislature can meet in so-called informal sessions where some noncontroversial business can still be conducted. But they are also sessions where one dissenting vote can halt action — not exactly practical for the myriad serious issues still to be resolved this year.

Discussions have already begun on Beacon Hill aimed at possibly extending the session.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office recently released a statement saying, “Given the COVID-19 emergency, Speaker DeLeo remains open to various scenarios involving going past 7/31, if necessary, and is in discussions with the Senate President and members on them.”


Senate President Karen Spilka said in an interview, “The Senate has worked methodically and deliberately in the hope of avoiding the end-of-the-session bottleneck. I wish the House had worked with the same sense of urgency.

“Now is the time to roll up our sleeves. I believe that whatever we need to do, we can get done by July 31,” she added, with one huge exception — the state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Right now, the state is limping along on temporary monthly budget appropriations — and for good reason. Lawmakers charged with drafting that budget are still awaiting word of what the pandemic has done to tax revenues — at a time when income tax collections weren’t even due until July 15. And there’s still no word out of Washington on what that latest stimulus bill will be able to offer to states.

“We need clarity on all that,” Spilka said.

“We are in unprecedented times and unprecedented times require unprecedented action,” she added.

A trailblazing police reform bill, drafted in the wake of the new racial reckoning brought on by the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, will require a conference committee for House and Senate conferees to work out their differences.

Huge differences also loom in major transportation bills, with the House looking to fund some $18 billion in projects with taxes on gas and ride-sharing, while the Senate went with a straight-up borrowing approach.


While both branches are in agreement on increasing access to telehealth — one of the few silver linings of this pandemic — even those bills differ in the language they use and so must be reconciled. Meanwhile, the House has yet to tackle Senate-passed bills on mental health parity and drug pricing.

Governor Charlie Baker’s perpetually stalled Housing Choice bill, aimed at increasing housing production, remains, well, perpetually stalled.

The speaker wants to see the House-passed GreenWorks bill pass the Senate, and while everyone seems agreed on a net-zero carbon goal, getting this aspiration into law has been a work in progress.

As the legislative clock ticks down, it becomes ever more obvious that the work isn’t nearly done. And while deadlines have a way of focusing the minds of lawmakers, there are times when deadlines are simply barriers to doing what needs to be done.

In this extraordinary moment, legislators need to keep at it — to keep doing the job the voters sent them to Beacon Hill to do.

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