The Massachusetts Legislature on Wednesday morning passed long-awaited agreements on a $627 million economic stimulus bill and a multibillion-dollar transportation borrowing package, but only after bending its own rules — and the calendar — to finally get the proposals to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
Despite giving themselves five extra months to hash out major bills, lawmakers toiled until 4:42 a.m. in a chaotic end to their two-year session. It came well past what was supposed to be a deadline of midnight Tuesday to complete their work, and hours into the same day the new legislative class will be sworn in.
The last-minute deal on the economic development package featured a measure Baker has long sought to help speed housing production, and it would unlock hundreds of millions in borrowing, including relief for businesses battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers said. The 101-page bill did not include, however, language legalizing sports betting that had passed the House but ran into opposition in the Senate.
“No single piece of legislation is going to get us out of the recession we’re in. No single piece of legislation is going to solve the deep and multigenerational challenges we face around equity,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who led negotiations for the chamber on the package. “But this bill is going to be an important tool.”
A 63-page compromise version of a massive $16.5 billion transportation bond bill, meanwhile, is intended to help finance years of projects — from paving local roads to the reconstruction of the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston. It also included language hiking fees on Uber and Lyft rides in the state.
The approval of the bills in the middle of the night provided a coda to a bizarre year on Beacon Hill. Lawmaking was slowed first by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring and then by months of legislative inaction in the fall, before lawmakers finished with a flurry of new laws touching everything from policing to abortion to the state’s battered economy.
As several bills were finalized in frenzied negotiations on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, a skeleton crew in the House and Senate chambers led lawmakers through a stream of other bills, ranging from local governance proposals to a series of votes to override vetoes of individual items in the state’s $45.9 billion budget.
Amid the rapid-fire lawmaking, the Legislature also approved a resolution creating a commission to recommend changes to the state’s official motto and seal, which depicts a disembodied arm holding a sword above the image of a Native American. The seal has been criticized, according to one lawmaker, as “symbolizing white supremacy.”
Lawmakers also sent Baker a bill that would require the state to create standards for signage, lights, and other devices to ensure people can access hospital emergency departments at all times. The proposed changes were spurred by the 2016 death of Laura Levis, who collapsed just outside of a locked emergency room door at Somerville Hospital.
And as the session stretched on, legislators passed a bill targeting how universities handle sexual assault allegations. For instance, the bill would require public and private colleges in Massachusetts to craft policies for informing students and employees how they can file a report. Schools would also be required to send the state a variety of data each year, including the number of reports of sexual misconduct they received.
“For decades, survivors of sexual violence have been ignored, silenced, and erased. Now, students and survivors have risen up and written their own civil rights into law,” said John Gabrieli, cofounder of the Every Voice Coalition, which has pushed for the bill.
But it was the emergence of the economic development and transportation bills — both tied up in conference committees since late July — that consumed much of Beacon Hill’s attention early into Wednesday morning.
“As so many of these things do, they come together when the option is complete failure,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano said in a Bloomberg radio interview hours before the bills passed.
The economic package, carrying a bottom line well above the $450 million an initial version had authorized, included a variety of policy measures that gummed up discussions, even though it also was sprinkled with earmarks and funding for local projects important to many legislators.
Lawmakers ultimately adopted a version of a House proposal to cap commissions during the pandemic that delivery services charge restaurants, though the limits would apply to eateries with fewer than 25 locations in the state.
The final version also included the long-stalled Housing Choice legislation, which would reduce the threshold for approving many local zoning changes. Baker had argued the change would help spur the construction of more housing.
The economic development bill would offer $20 million to help small restaurants suffering in the pandemic, and tens of millions more in funding or loans for small businesses. The package comes on top of other types of aid that have materialized for hard-hit businesses, including a new federal stimulus package and a $668 million state relief fund.
The long-debated transportation bond bill involved its own share of final negotiations, including the bottom line: Lawmakers settled on $16.5 billion, even though they initially considered versions closer to $18 billion.
The final version also would boost fees for Uber and Lyft trips to $1.20, up from 20 cents, for non-shared rides, though the fees will vary based on other details of the ride. Neither the House nor the Senate included the fee increases in earlier versions of the legislation, but lawmakers had included them in other bills and made clear throughout 2020 that they believed the fees should be higher.
The bond bill also lowers fines and bars arrests for fare evasion on the MBTA, a provision that officials and advocates supported as a way to make a new fare system that will rely on regular fare inspections less punitive.
The package, however, did not include another revenue measure the Senate had backed that would allow cities and towns to band together to raise taxes at the local level to pay for transportation packages.
“Each and every area of the commonwealth will benefit from this investment,” state Senator Joseph A. Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat and the chamber’s lead negotiator, said from the Senate floor just after 1:30 a.m.
Baker has previously said a transportation bond bill was critical for the state’s ongoing authority to borrow money to fund smaller-scale road work — such as paving projects and bridge repairs — or to sign long-term agreements that involve federal reimbursements.
“We need that bill for the spring construction and summer construction season,” Baker said Monday at an unrelated news conference.
In a State House not known for its transparency, lawmakers frequently suspend their own rules and send bills to the governor shortly after the final language becomes public. And as they have often done in the past, they again allowed voting to bleed well beyond their deadlines.
But with the new legislative session beginning Wednesday, lawmakers lost the ability to respond to any vetoes from Baker, who has 10 days to act on any of the bills once they reach his desk.
This week’s last-minute rush capped a long, strange year on Beacon Hill. Nearly two months after the pandemic first buffeted Massachusetts, the Legislature pivoted to remote voting for the first time in its 400-year history to restart formal sessions. Then, lawmakers voted to extend their usual July 31 deadline to complete major legislation by more than five additional months to this week.
In that time, the Legislature sat largely idle for more than three months, relaunching formal lawmaking only after Election Day. It set up a hectic lame-duck session, during which lawmakers and Baker finalized a state budget nearly halfway through the fiscal year, and the House changed speakers for the first time in 12 years, handing the gavel to Mariano after Robert A. DeLeo’s resignation.
In the last two weeks, the Legislature finalized a bill mandating that insurance carriers cover telehealth services and another intended to position the state as a “net zero” producer of carbon emissions by 2050.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described a proposal to cap the commissions that delivery services can charge restaurants during the pandemic. It would apply to eateries with fewer than 25 locations.