As it neared 5 a.m. Wednesday, a small group of senators, representatives, and staff stuck to their posts at the State House, swiftly shepherding through weighty bills with virtually no debate and hours after the formal session’s epilogue was supposed to be written.
About six hours later, many of them were back, participating inside, outside, and with colleagues over Zoom in undoubtedly the most unusual swearing-in ceremony any had experienced.
Such was the end, and the beginning, of formal legislative business Wednesday on Beacon Hill — an uncommon fog of action, even by the State House’s opaque standards.
In sweeping the last of its to-do list to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk, the Legislature wrapped a bizarre two-year session by passing billions of dollars in authorized borrowing, raising ride-sharing fees, reshaping housing laws, and creating a commission to recommend changing the state flag, among other things.
Each of those final votes, often pushed quickly through the chambers, happened well after midnight, and epitomized the type of last-minute scramble lawmakers often say they want to avoid but routinely find themselves in, with session deadlines bearing down on them and sprawling negotiations still undone.
It’s uncommon, however, for lawmaking to stretch to almost 5 a.m., particularly after lawmakers gave themselves five extra months to complete their formal work during the pandemic.
Even rarer is for such a marathon session — it lasted 17 hours over two days — to happen at the close of a two-year session.
In all, the Legislature acted in some form on 167 existing bills across Tuesday and Wednesday morning, according to InstaTrac, the Boston-based legislative information service.
That did not include 24 bills that newly surfaced in that time, including the deal on sprawling economic development legislation and a $16.5 billion transportation bond bill that will also mean higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides. Both were released and voted on within just a few hours, offering rank-and-file legislators and the public little time to scrutinize complex, lengthy bills.
“Obviously you didn’t want to leave it to the last minute,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s budget chairman and its lead negotiator for the nearly $630 million economic development package. Closed-door talks with the Senate formally began on the bill in late July.
“It took a little time,” Michlewitz said, before quickly adding: “It took a lot of time.”
That lawmakers worked so early into Wednesday morning — after repeatedly suspending its own rules — became somewhat of a running joke when they reconvened hours later. House Speaker Ronald Mariano, initially tapped for the post last week before the session ended, greeted Democrats on a morning caucus call Wednesday as his “foggy friends.”
After lawmakers voted, 127-30, to give him a full two-year term as speaker, Mariano took to the House rostrum and gave the gavel a forceful rap, chuckling as it reverberated through the sparsely filled chamber.
“That’s to wake up the folks who were in here until 5 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “I can’t believe that I’m here right now.”
He wasn’t alone. Before he swore in members of the House for their new terms — with all but 40 participating remotely — Governor Charlie Baker welcomed the dozens sitting in their seats to the House chamber, joking: “I realize it was about 20 minutes ago that you left.”
“It was a heck of an effort, folks,” the Republican told them.
The final hours of the session produced a number of other notable bills, including one 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 proposal was spurred by the 2016 death of Laura Levis, who collapsed just outside of a locked emergency room door at Somerville Hospital. “I hope I never have to hear of someone ever again dying steps from an emergency-room door,” said Peter DeMarco, Levis’s husband who first wrote about her tragic death. “And that will all be because of Laura.”
Lawmakers sewed up all the necessary votes on the bill shortly after 3 a.m.
“What’s ideal is having good legislation done,” said state Senator Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat who led the chamber’s talks with House officials on the transportation bond bill. “I’m just here to get the work done.”
When they returned to the State House Wednesday, among the senators and representatives’ first votes was to overwhelmingly elect Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka for two-year terms atop their chambers.
Afterward, they sketched out an early focus for a new two-year legislative session, with Spilka saying “the time is now” for pursuing legislation creating emergency paid leave, delighting progressive advocates.
But both leaders otherwise spoke in broad terms about navigating different issues amid the pandemic, offering few specific policy proposals. And other lawmakers acknowledged that their sprint to finish the last session (on Wednesday morning) and the immediate start to the current one (on Wednesday afternoon) left virtually no time to effectively flesh out an agenda or even specific aspirations for the coming months.
“I know everybody thinks that we go off to the beach and eat bonbons when we’re not in session,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat. “But that’s a really active time. It’s just not as public facing. Very few of us have had that kind of deep introspection and research period.”
Or for that matter, sleep. When Michlewitz finished the session shortly after 4:30 a.m., he said he walked to his North End home and weighed staying awake before having to trudge back up Beacon Hill a few hours later. (He ultimately thought better of it and got a two-hour nap.)
When a reporter later asked if there was anything else he wanted to say about the late-night session, Michlewitz just laughed. “I’d be too tired to even remember if that was the case.”