fb-pixel

‘We should be embarrassed’: In quiet extended session, Legislature’s unfinished work will bleed past Election Day

Morning light hit the dome of the Massachusetts State House, under which not much lawmaking has been done in recent months.
Morning light hit the dome of the Massachusetts State House, under which not much lawmaking has been done in recent months.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Since the end of July, the State House has provided the backdrop for a stream of rallies calling for racial justice legislation, demanding that lawmakers blunt an expected tide of evictions, and pushing for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

What Beacon Hill hasn’t seen much of: actual lawmaking.

In the 2½ months since they voted to expand their calendar amid the pandemic, Massachusetts lawmakers have not held a single formal session or roll call vote. Five major pieces of legislation that could reshape policing, transportation, health care, and more remain locked in secretive, closed-door talks. A state budget is unlikely to be completed until next month at the earliest.

Advertisement



That slow crawl raises the likelihood that many, if not all, of those outstanding bills won’t surface until after Election Day, effectively sparing some lawmakers the potential for a difficult vote with their name on the ballot.

It also would ensure that lame-duck members would be among those approving the year’s most substantive legislation. It’s the exact scenario a legislative rule was designed to prevent before lawmakers suspended it this summer to extend their window for formal lawmaking.

“We should be embarrassed as a Legislature to sit here in the middle of a crisis and not deliver for our communities,” said state Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who’s vocally pushed for an agreement on a high-profile policing bill that remains tied up in negotiations.

Holmes, who’s publicly clashed with House leadership in the past, said he believes a desire among some lawmakers to avoid high-profile votes ahead of Nov. 3 — and potentially endanger conservative Democrats facing Republican challengers — has helped stanch the flow of legislation. “It shouldn’t even be part of the calculus," he said.

Legislative leaders deny that politicking has played a role, though some acknowledge the logistics of running a campaign have conflicted with their ability to hash out high-stakes negotiations.

Advertisement



“I’m running around [campaigning] when I could be doing health care stuff,” said state Representative Ronald Mariano, the House’s majority leader. Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, is facing a challenge from Republican Stephen F. Tougas in November, and is also one of six legislators reconciling differences on sweeping health care bills the House and Senate passed.

“I often tell everyone: If you don’t get reelected, you can’t be a help to anyone. That’s the first thing you have to deal with," Mariano said. “But this was not the plan. This is not what we wanted to do, going into a lame-duck session making decisions like this.”

Legislative leaders insist they do not view the election as a guidepost in completing their work, nor has the prospect of the vote impacted the timing of internal negotiations, which are often influenced by several factors.

This year, lawmakers on each of the five, six-person negotiating teams are conducting talks virtually, which they say can put a drag on the pace of discussions. Several bills, including an economic development package or multibillion-dollar transportation bond legislation, are complex, omnibus proposals that would require time-consuming negotiations, even in normal times.

The team discussing the health care bills also hit a snag this month when state Representative Daniel R. Cullinane, one of the conferees, announced he was taking a lobbying job, and was replaced by another lawmaker on the committee months after talks began.

Advertisement



“We are focusing on resolving these issues successfully, rather than on external deadlines,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a statement about the outstanding bills.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said representatives vowed to work with the Senate to reach a resolution on important bills and respond to any “unexpected” challenges. “That work continues,” Catherine Williams, the spokeswoman, said.

Normally, that work would have needed to be completed by July 31, an election-year deadline legislators first created in 1995 to avoid what had become a crush of lame-duck lawmaking.

But after the pandemic derailed their operations, lawmakers voted to give themselves until Jan. 5 to complete “formal business” — the day before the newly elected Legislature must legally convene. There have been few, if any, public developments since.

“Whatever the outside deadlines are, sometimes people don’t focus on the need to compromise until the clock starts to force it upon them,” said state Representative William M. Straus, who is helping lead negotiations on the transportation bond bill.

Several lawmakers noted that relatively few of their colleagues actually have roadblocks to reelection this year, guaranteeing they’ll be back in January and, theoretically, dulling any political motivation to avoid votes. Within the 200-member Legislature, 41 incumbents — 23 Democrats, 17 Republicans, and one independent — face a challenge on Nov. 3. Fourteen lawmakers within the 200-member Legislature opted not to seek reelection.

Advertisement



Nevertheless, those juggling a competitive race are “essentially out of commission,” said state Senator Michael J. Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who is on the six-person conference committee negotiating climate change legislation.

“There is a habit of deference to those incumbents, whether there are a lot of them or just a few of them who really have to devote September and October to campaigning,” Barrett said. The larger concern, he said, may be the raft of priorities left, all of which can suck up oxygen in an ever-shrinking calendar.

“I’m concerned overall for our productivity,” Barrett said.

There are other demands beyond the conference committees, namely the state budget. The pandemic-induced economic crisis upended the state’s revenue picture, and for months delayed officials from crafting a spending plan for the fiscal year that began in July.

Governor Charlie Baker refiled his own proposal on Wednesday, projecting a nearly $3.6 billion revenue shortfall, and said he hopes the Legislature can pass its own version by Thanksgiving.

But that likely means lawmakers will have to pass another temporary spending bill to keep state government funded until then, all while holding a hearing this week on Baker’s bill, crafting their own proposal, and corralling a process normally laden with amendments and behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

“We’ve had to maneuver through a lot of unpredictability,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, the House budget chairman. “The hope is to get these pieces done as quickly as possible and avoid running up against any deadlines.”

Advertisement



Lawmakers, too, are hearing growing clamor to use their extended session to address other still-lingering bills. Housing advocates had pressed them in recent weeks to further protect renters from evictions with a state moratorium that expired Saturday, including marching to the State House two days earlier.

Baker last week unveiled a $171 million package of programs aimed to keep struggling renters in their homes. But advocates fear it’s not enough to stem the tide, and state Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, tried unsuccessfully on Thursday to force an emergency extension until January.

Both chambers gaveled out of their lightly attended informal sessions without taking action on Connolly’s petition, disappointing progressive lawmakers who pushed for the measure.

"We need to do something about it,” state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, said of protecting renters. “People who are about to be evicted don’t care that an election is coming up.”

Some in the Legislature fear that similar inaction, or even the appearance of it, will fuel frustration that the Legislature isn’t meeting the moment.

“The world has not stopped around us, but it seems like the Legislature has stopped," said one legislator, who requested anonymity to speak openly amid the variety of ongoing, sensitive legislative negotiations. “Sometimes the perception of that can be just as damaging.”


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