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In unprecedented session, Mass. Legislature dives into August without deal on policing bill

Lawmakers are trying to complete, and pass, closed-door negotiations on any number of bills that passed ahead of Friday.
Lawmakers are trying to complete, and pass, closed-door negotiations on any number of bills that passed ahead of Friday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Legislature sped through bills both big and small into early Saturday morning, adding to a slate of proposals that will now be decided in closed-door negotiations amid an extended, and unprecedented legislative session.

But the flurry of activity came with one notable omission: Lawmakers did not reach a deal on a closely watched policing bill, despite hopes and public prodding from legislative leaders to reach an agreement before August dawned.

The busy stretch on Beacon Hill came a day after lawmakers formally approved an order wiping away a decades-old rule and a Friday deadline to complete most of its work.

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Although offering more time, the decision also dramatically reshaped the legislative calendar, leaving little clarity on when a host of major proposals could begin streaming to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk before the two-year legislative session ends in January.

It also did little to diffuse the frenetic pace of legislating that usually dominates the end of July in an election year. Friday sessions in the House and Senate each bled past midnight, even as final agreements on several major pieces of legislation remained locked in secretive, six-member conference committees.

The chambers did reach and send to Baker an agreement authorizing roughly $1.8 billion in borrowing for information technology projects, including $50 million for a school grant program to help expand remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The House also passed a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on natural hairstyles, including in schools where officials would be barred from creating any policy that “impairs or prohibits” them.

The original bill was filed by Representative Steven Ultrino, a Democrat from Malden, where a charter school was admonished in 2017 over its hair and makeup policy that authorities say violated state and federal law and unfairly subjected students of color to “differential treatment.”

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But by early Saturday morning, a police accountability bill was among those still unresolved. The legislation promises for the first time to create a licensing process for officers and install other changes that officials say will tighten accountability of law enforcement statewide.

The bill has been at the center of an intensifying debate for weeks. Police unions have derided it as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, while criminal justice advocates, buoyed by hundreds of demonstrations against police brutality that have sprung up in Massachusetts alone, have pushed policy-makers to embrace stricter controls on officer conduct.

Thousands weighed in, including unions, advocacy groups, and private citizens. Lawmakers were pressing to finalize an agreement and get it to Baker before August dawned.

A deal between the two chambers would cap weeks of rapid movement. Senators and representatives each passed expansive bills in the last three weeks, and a committee of six lawmakers tasked with brokering a final version only met for the first time Tuesday.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement Saturday that negotiators “are working productively to come to agreement.”

“We are committed to reaching resolution, and the conferees will take the time to get it right,” the Winthrop Democrat said.

Even with the extra time that lawmakers have afforded themselves, the to-do list remains long. Lawmakers are trying to complete, and pass, closed-door negotiations on any number of bills that passed ahead of Friday, including a jobs bill, health care legislation, and a multi-billion-dollar transportation borrowing proposal. They also need to hammer out an annual budget, with Baker saying Friday he intended to sign an interim, three-month spending plan that lawmakers passed to keep state government funded through October.

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Legislators have also left open the possibility of tackling coronavirus-related legislation this fall, should a new surge in cases, or economic fallout, demand action.

Yet, without their normal deadline, Friday, like the rest of the week, was still marked by extended, parallel sessions in the House and Senate, where lawmakers worked through a cache of unfinished work.

Amid land takings and other smaller bills, the House late Friday overwhelmingly passed climate change legislation that would create a “road map” for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Senate had passed its own, more far-reaching package of bills earlier this year.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed a version of House-approved legislation that would, among many things, create a “bill of rights” for foster parents and require the Department of Children and Families to produce certain data.

That’s only the beginning of the raft of major bills left to be reconciled.

The two chambers have to hash out differences in a pair of $450 million-plus jobs bills, both of which include different iterations of a Baker-backed housing proposal that would lower the threshold of votes needed at the local level for a variety of residential proposals.

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The House also passed language legalizing sports betting as part of the bill, but the Senate, where several members of leadership had opposed legalized casino gambling nearly a decade ago, did not.

A bond bill authorizing billions in borrowing for transportation needs also remained in a closed-door conference committee as of early Saturday. Lawmakers also need to meld together different health care bills that, among other things, would require insurers to cover tele-health visits, albeit on different timetables.

But it’s the policing bill that has drawn the most attention. Both chambers adopted sweeping versions of the legislation, stretching 89 pages in the Senate and 111 pages in the House.

The pieces of legislation had similar goals, including, for the first time, licensing police officers, who could then lose their certification for certain misconduct. But they proposed disparate procedures for investigating officers, and different structures for a new committee to oversee it.

Both also sought to change state law around qualified immunity, a hotly debated legal doctrine that shields individual officers from personal liability for misconduct. But they did so in vastly different ways: The Senate proposed scaling back its use by allowing civil rights lawsuits under state law if the officer should have reasonably known their conduct broke the law.

After several unions complained that the broadly worded change would apply to all public employees, the House took a more narrow path, tying qualified immunity, in part, to the new licensing process, where officers would lose the personal legal protection in cases where their conduct results in decertification.

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The House legislation would also give Attorney General Maura Healey’s office a direct role in investigating deadly force cases involving police, an authority that under state law is currently reserved for local district attorneys.

But even though Democrats enjoy a super-majority in both chambers, the legislation divided lawmakers. The House approved the bill, 93-66, but with dozens of Democrats voting against it, effectively robbing it of a veto-proof majority.

On Thursday, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police issued a statement commending the 66 House members who voted against the bill, going as far as to urge its members to support those facing challenges in the November election.


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