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Mass. lawmakers move toward extending the legislative session

The State House.
The State House.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Hampered for months by one novel crisis, the Legislature is on the verge of something else that’s unprecedented: spiking its own calendar to make laws.

The House on Wednesday unanimously passed an order to suspend a legislative rule, including a looming Friday deadline to finish formal lawmaking, and give legislators until January to complete a raft of unfinished bills.

The top official in the Senate said that chamber, too, supports the proposal, all but assuring lawmakers will continue to mete out legislation in the coming months, including while they face reelection.

The order, unveiled Wednesday by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, would suspend a rule lawmakers first established 25 years ago to complete “formal business” at certain points in the two-year legislation session, including by July 31 in an election year.

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The Legislature traditionally still meets in informal sessions for the remainder of the session, during which a single lawmaker can derail proceedings. But the rule’s intent was to avoid formally debating bills as legislators campaigned for reelection, and lame-duck legislating after Election Day.

In a statement, DeLeo said the emergence of COVID-19 created “unprecedented public health and fiscal challenges” and that by suspending the rules, the Legislature could meet in formal sessions for the “remainder of the year and ensure that the pressing matters debated by July 31st are resolved.”

“No one can predict what might happen over the next five weeks, much less the next five months,” DeLeo said. “We must remain prepared to address critical issues related to the health, safety and economic well-being of the Commonwealth when and if they arise over the next five months.”

The order needs the approval of both chambers, where leaders are negotiating, or preparing to reconcile, several major proposals, including hotly debated police accountability legislation, a transportation bond bill, and a sweeping jobs bill, one version of which cleared the House on Tuesday and another that was the focus of Senate debate on Wednesday.

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The House took up the order less than a half-hour after DeLeo first announced it, and no one spoke in opposition before it passed, 159-0. Senate President Karen E. Spilka, who previously said she was open to extending the session, indicated that senators will also take up the order.

“The Senate is pleased that the House has agreed with us to extend the session to complete vital legislation and stand ready to act as required by the COVID-19 crisis,” Spilka said in a statement.

The three-page order does not set specific limits on when lawmakers could meet in session, beyond allowing formal lawmaking “subsequent to the last day of July 2020.” The legislative session officially ends in early January with new members sworn in soon thereafter.

Lawmakers have suspended their rules at least three times in the past, including in 2005, to allow members of the House and Senate to meet during a recess period. But legislative officials have said they’re unaware of the Legislature ever doing so in the second year of the two-year session, when every seat of the Legislature is on the ballot.

This year, of course, the legislative calendar quickly became scrambled amid the pandemic. The House and Senate operated for months without formal sessions before passing emergency rules to allow lawmakers to participate remotely. But they also faced a wave of new priorities, from responding to COVID-19 and its aftermath to addressing widespread calls to tighten oversight on police.

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And there is far more to be done. Legislative leaders this week passed an interim three-month state budget, punting any decisions on a complete spending plan until later in the year.

The chambers will also probably have to reconcile different versions of health care legislation. And a climate change proposal surfaced in the House setting a new statewide goal of meeting “net-zero” emissions by 2050 — months after the Senate passed a similar but more expansive set of bills.

“There’s a difference in aggressiveness,” Senator Michael J. Barrett said of the climate change bills. But he said it’s “good news” the Legislature is likely to pass an extension on lawmaking, giving more time to settle differences on the new emissions goals.

“I don’t think we’re going to work next week. But I think we’ll be back relatively soon,” the Lexington Democrat said of returning to session. “I don’t think we’ll wait until election time.”

Legislative leaders had been discussing the possibility of extending formal lawmaking as the calendar barreled toward August. Should the order ultimately pass, it would both give lawmakers more time to tackle substantive bills while sapping power from Governor Charlie Baker to veto bills or return them with amendments after the Legislature ends formal lawmaking, limiting its ability to respond.

A Baker spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the order Wednesday.

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The two chambers are also trying to reconcile sweeping policing bills that are littered with differences, though Spilka said Wednesday that she still wants to get legislation to Baker’s desk by Saturday.

“I am confident that our colleagues in the House share our commitment to acting on this matter by the end of the week,” she said.

The House and Senate also moved quickly this week on economic development legislation. Both versions include iterations of a Baker-backed housing proposal, including through an amendment passed Wednesday in the Senate. That measure would reduce the approval requirement for a range of local votes involving residential proposals from a two-thirds majority of a city council or a town meeting to a simple majority.

However, the Senate proposal would also withhold certain kinds of state funds from cities and towns served by the MBTA system that do not have at least one zone for multifamily housing within a half-mile of a transit station. That change is opposed by several real estate groups and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.