The final version of a bill spending billions in federal aid was revealed late Wednesday, long after dark. By Thursday morning, the $4 billion package emerged in a nearly empty chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where it was approved without an audible “yea” or “nay.” Four minutes later, the session was over.
The moves ushered the long-sought bill to the Senate and inched it closer to the governor’s desk — but with no formal remarks, just six of 159 representatives on hand, and the public still physically locked out of the building.
The sweeping spending legislation promises hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from housing to workforce training to Massachusetts’ health care system. It also offers the potential of transformational change for industries and communities walloped by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers say.
But for a plan with massive implications, such swift movement, like Thursday’s, was by design.
After missing a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal on the bill — and starting a seven-week recess on Nov. 17 — Senate and House leaders spent two weeks unknotting differing versions of the package behind closed doors, all while Governor Charlie Baker and community leaders fretted about the need to quickly reach a compromise.
After they announced they did Tuesday night, the bill itself didn’t formally emerge until nearly 24 hours later after legislators needed the day to smooth out its language. The bill officially made it to the House clerk’s office at 7:56 p.m., on Wednesday — four minutes before a deadline for so-called conference committee reports to be able to be considered the next day.
With lawmakers on recess, their calendar includes only informal sessions, where no roll calls are taken and unanimous voice votes are required, and are often done quickly, for a bill to move.
So, about 15 hours after the final package had been released, it emerged shortly into a 10-minute-long House session on Thursday. The House gallery — still closed to the public with the rest of State House after 600-plus days — was empty, save for a toddler in pink overalls teetering about with a House court officer in tow. Some of the half-dozen state representatives dotting the chamber were engrossed in their smartphones.
The House approved the compromise with an unrecorded voice vote and no speeches on the floor. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on Friday, when a few procedural votes in both chambers will finally usher it to Baker.
While uncommon to move major legislation through an informal session, legislators said Thursday that the bill’s debate-less passage isn’t indicative of the process that’s consumed it.
For months, lawmakers touted a deliberate approach over Baker’s prodding to move quickly, holding a half-dozen hearings about how to spend the $4.9 billion of once-in-a-generation federal stimulus aid on which the bill is largely built.
Both the House and Senate passed their versions unanimously in full, formal sessions, using funds both from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and a $1.5 billion state surplus. Much of what the chambers passed remained in the final compromise version, lawmakers say, though it grew $180 million beyond what either chamber had initially approved. Conference committee reports are not subject to amendments.
“I think people wanted to get it done quickly and not necessarily worry about discussions on the floor about it,” state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s lead negotiator on the bill, said of Thursday’s session. “We brought everyone to the table who wanted to be at the table during the discussion. It’s bipartisan, it has a lot of good things in there.”
Even in moving the bill without the full legislative bodies present, said state Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, “I don’t think anything is lost.”
“If there’s anything lost in the media, it’s really the governor’s news that is going to trump it,” the Westport Democrat said, referring to Baker’s announcement Wednesday that he won’t seek reelection next year.
Not all agree.
Informal sessions are typically reserved for “non-controversial housekeeping items,” argued Paul Craney, a spokesman for the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, not to pass a multibillion-dollar spending package.
And with such hulking legislation — it spans 163 pages and 3,679 lines, and includes hundreds of earmarks — advocates argue that giving the public the time to examine how the money is spent during each step of the legislative process is crucial.
While the House and Senate largely agreed on what areas should receive funding, they repeatedly disagreed on how much, prompting various shifts in totals within the compromise. And even in instances where they appeared to be in agreement, such as dedicating $100 million for port work geared toward the offshore wind industry, change proved to be unavoidable. Funding on that item dropped to $90 million in the final version.
“Ultimately, the only version of the bill that matters is the final version,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “And even if there was some opportunity for the public to be a part of the process, to see some of the deliberations and debate over certain amendments, all that matters now is: What is in the final bill? What made the final cut, and what didn’t?”
A lot did. The bill promises to pump $400 million for mental and behavioral health, in part to help recruit more workers to that field, and dedicates more than a half-billion dollars for housing, including to help spur more first-time homeownership in what is a rapidly growing state.
Huge buckets of funding also will flow to local and regional public health systems, the state’s hospitals, and schools to upgrade HVAC systems. Funds were set aside for bonuses of at least $500 for low-income essential workers.
The package also is littered with earmarks big and small. It carves out $6.5 million to help Boston address the humanitarian crisis at intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, including $5 million for “post treatment supportive housing.” The city of Lynn will get $2.5 million to help improve the water quality at King’s Beach, which on many summer days remains unsafe for swimming. Another $5 million is reserved to help pay down debt service obligations at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.
There are also line items as small as $50,000 for renovations to Townsend’s town common gazebo, $100,000 “to nourish and restore” beach dunes in Edgartown, and $125,000 to help restore a 90-year-old cemetery chapel in Wakefield.
“The more resources we can pull in from the state the less we have to pass on to the citizens,” said Connor Read, the town administrator of Easton, which is in line to receive $2 million toward a $9.2 million project to build three plants for treating the town’s water for toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
“This is going to be an exceptionally expensive endeavor for all of us [in Massachusetts] in the coming decades,” he said.
The Senate ultimately opted to wait until Friday before taking up the compromise, in part to give senators “a full day to look at it,” said Rodrigues, the chamber’s top negotiator on the legislation.
Rodrigues said he plans to speak about the bill on the Senate floor. He said he also intends to be brief.