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Mass. lawmakers rush to pass bills before time runs out

Legislature faces deadline of midnight Tuesday when session ends

The House chambers at the Massachusetts State House.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After 734 days of formal lawmaking, the Massachusetts Legislature is locked in a sprint to finish a crush of legislation — touching everything from major transportation projects to economic aid for businesses — before a bizarre legislative session closes at midnight Tuesday.

The last-minute scramble engulfing Beacon Hill is one lawmakers know well, though it’s usually reserved for the heat of late July when formal legislative sessions normally end.

This year, legislators gave themselves more than five extra months to complete their formal business amid the pandemic. But despite the extension, lawmakers are still racing to finish their work before time expires this week. The prospects of a $450 million economic stimulus remained murky Monday evening, and lawmakers still need to pass a $17 billion transportation bond bill.

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Moreover, even if lawmakers manage to pass the bills and send them to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk by Tuesday night, they haven’t allotted themselves any time to overcome a gubernatorial veto. Normally, even when the Legislature faces a July deadline to pass key bills in formal sessions, they still have the option to try to override a veto later — an option that disappears when the new legislative class is sworn in Wednesday.

“I’ve been here 30 years. This is very unusual,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, an industry group that is closely following several bills, including a sprawling economic development package that’s yet to reach Baker. “Comprehensive proposals like that, in the last 24 or 48 hours, they’re either going to become law or not. And some of them might not even get to him.”

After postponing the legislative deadline in July, the House and Senate each went more than three months without holding any formal sessions. Instead, incumbent lawmakers were busy trying to hold off primary or general election challenges, some unsuccessfully.

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Once the Legislature began convening again after Election Day, it kick-started a torrential stretch in which lawmakers wrangled over details of a sweeping policing bill that Baker signed on New Year’s Eve; reached a long-overdue budget deal; passed language expanding abortion access over Baker’s veto; and just last week, finalized legislation mandating that insurance carriers cover telehealth services.

Meanwhile, attention in the House also turned to a rapid but historic transfer of power. Robert A. DeLeo resigned last week as the longest-serving House speaker in Massachusetts history, handing off the gavel to his longtime deputy, Quincy’s Ronald Mariano. In between, both chambers have gradually overrode Baker’s budget vetoes, and passed a bevy of bills dealing with local land issues and liquor licenses.

Now, the House and Senate are trying to complete work on more complicated legislation. Legislative leaders announced Sunday night they had reached a deal on a climate change bill, which would establish new limits on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; both chambers passed the compromise Monday, sending it to Baker.

Other measures remain unfinished. Baker said a failure to pass the transportation bond bill would jeopardize the state’s ongoing authority to borrow money to fund road projects. And one of the governor’s biggest priorities is an economic development bill, though Mariano, the new House speaker, told the State House News Service last week that talks were still “very far apart” on the legislation.

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Tucked into the economic development bill is language Baker has pushed to lower the voting threshold required for many local land-use issues from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. It’s a change, he said, that could spark much-needed housing construction, particularly in Greater Boston. He also believes the bill is needed to provide assistance for small businesses, because of the challenges they face amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not unusual to have fairly large and complicated pieces of legislation get completed right under the wire. That usually happens in July, not January,” Baker told The Boston Globe on Thursday. “I remain hopeful, but obviously with such a short window, it does worry me.”

For some, the regular legislative procrastination obscures a larger problem. Marie-Frances Rivera, president at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said even with Mariano’s vows to tackle housing, health care, or education, the State House lacks a “north star” in accomplishing bigger goals.

“The last-minute scramble, without a comprehensive vision and the money to make the smart investments, just seems to me that you’re spinning your wheels to get nowhere,” she said.

Even more, the prospects for other legislation remain unclear. In mid-December, the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees released a joint statement saying they were “committed” to passing a bill setting standards on how Massachusetts colleges should address sexual misconduct on campus. A version of the bill passed the Senate on Dec. 16, and House officials Monday night could not say if or when it could emerge in the House.

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The Baker administration is also closely eying a bill filed less than three weeks ago that Baker said would spare employers a $1.3 billion increase in unemployment insurance taxes over the next two years.

And there are any number of bills that cleared one chamber in previous months but remain stuck in another. For example, the Senate in October passed a bill that would require that the state create standards for signage and wayfinding for hospital emergency departments. The proposed changes were spurred by the 2016 death of a Laura Levis, who collapsed just outside of a locked emergency room door at Somerville Hospital.

Top of mind for many on Beacon Hill, however, remain the transportation and economic stimulus packages — two omnibus bills that often pass like clockwork in the Legislature but now face a tightening one.

“They know they need to get them done now,” Baker said of legislators Monday at an unrelated news conference. “Because if they don’t, they gotta start all over again.”

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.