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Infighting, obfuscation, delay: the chaotic end of Massachusetts’ legislative session

The halls of the Massachusetts State HouseCarlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

A $52.7 billion budget passed weeks after the fiscal year began. A monthslong tax relief effort that languished in the middle of the night. And a Democratic supermajority ceding its power to a lame-duck Republican governor, who can now veto at will without the threat of an override.

Even for seasoned lobbyists, lawmakers, and advocates used to the secretive, deadline-averse Massachusetts Legislature, the end of the formal session came as a shocking disappointment, with billions of dollars in spending and major policy proposals left on the table as legislators decamped for a five-month recess from formal duties.

The final scramble on Beacon Hill at the end of July threw into sharp relief some of the state’s more unenviable distinctions: The proud cradle of democracy is among the worst in the country on open government and meeting key deadlines.

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And that dysfunction carries immediate consequences for some of the state’s neediest: low-income families left without expanded tax credits, COVID-battered hospitals without crucial funding, and incarcerated people without relief from onerous telephone charges when they call home.

“It’s an abandonment,” said Katy Naples-Mitchell, a lawyer and lead advocate for making calls for prison inmates free, one of many proposals that fell casualty to the Legislature’s chaotic last few hours. That provision appeared to enjoy broad support, but after the Senate attached a controversial amendment to it, the proposal stalled “in the middle of the night, with very few people watching, with the constituency who this most affects totally cut out,” she said.

The deals that lawmakers did manage to strike came after hours of late-night horse trading and closed-door discussions, in some cases surprising even the advocates most attentive to legislative deliberations. And, true to form, even the Legislature’s final efforts came late, finishing after 10 a.m. on Aug. 1, well after what was supposed to have been a midnight deadline on July 31. All this was complicated by animosity between the chambers’ leaders, whose poor communication and differences of opinion led to the failure of a landmark economic development bill that would have sent $1 billion in tax relief to Massachusetts families.

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Democratic leaders said they will take up some of the top-priority bills later this year, in so-called informal sessions. But doing so carries major risk, because even one dissenting vote can sink legislation during informal sessions.

Sam Anderson, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was “crestfallen” when funding for climate and nature programs got lost with the dissolution of the economic development bill. Anderson is “not confident at all” that the Legislature will approve that money this year, he said.

Among other casualties: authorizing the Massachusetts Lottery to sell products online and steer the profits to early education and care; giving Boston a seat on the MBTA board; and blessing a low-income fare pilot program for commuters in Eastern Massachusetts.

“There’s a real frustration,” said state Senator Lydia Edwards, a Democrat from East Boston. “When you have money to spend should be the time when we get along. What’s going to happen when we are in a recession? When we don’t have the money, how are we going to react?”

Legislative leaders continue to tout what they did achieve: finally reaching a deal on sports betting after four years of debate, expanding access to mental health care, and reforming the rules for the state’s booming marijuana industry. And some pointed to external factors that complicated the final weeks of the session: major decisions from the Supreme Court on guns and abortion, and a declaration by Governor Charlie Baker that the state’s booming revenues would require Massachusetts to return an estimated $3 billion dollars to taxpayers — news that top lawmakers said came as a complete surprise to them.

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Beyond the challenges specific to this year, critics point to a more fundamental issue with how the Legislature, which works in two-year formal sessions with full-time pay, routinely leaves high-stakes policymaking to the last minute.

On July 18, the Massachusetts Legislature became one of the last in the nation to pass a 2023 budget. It’s hardly the first time they’ve blown that date, either. Legislatures in other states butt up against deadlines, but the majority manage year after year to pass their budgets on time. Many also have moved far faster to distribute billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Legislature’s endemic tardiness meant that a Democratic-supermajority willingly surrendered control to the Republican governor, allowing Baker the final word on many major bills because they did not leave themselves enough time to override any of his vetoes. Last week, for example, he rejected a measure that would have banned the construction of new prison or jail facilities for five years. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly supported that ban, but were already out of session and had no recourse to override the veto. In most legislative bodies, partisans cling to any slim advantage they have, mining it for maximum power.

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Some state legislatures employ time management strategies to ensure priorities don’t flounder or get negotiated during middle-of-the-night sessions. In Wisconsin, which also has a full-time Legislature, party leaders negotiate in advance how much time will be spent on each bill during a floor session, so that it’s rare for sessions to last longer than a few hours or go late into the evening.

“You have a ballpark for how long it’s going to last,” said Carlos Frazier, chief of staff for the Wisconsin Legislature’s assistant minority leader.

Massachusetts is also the only state in the nation whose judicial, legislative, and executive branches all claim to be exempt from public records laws.

This tendency toward secrecy only increased in the final chaotic hours of the session, as small groups of lawmakers negotiating some of the highest-priority bills shuffled in and out of conference rooms at 3 or 4 in the morning, ignoring questions from reporters.

That lack of transparency was “not surprising at all, but no less disappointing,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition

“Anytime a Legislature shuts out the public from its process, we’re all left wondering how and why it made the decisions it did,” Silverman added.

Other states are far more open. In Florida, which has some of the nation’s strongest transparency laws, any group of two or more officials elected to the same body constitutes a public meeting, which must be reasonably advertised, open to the public, and recorded with official minutes.

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In Massachusetts, policy disagreements hardly ever emerge into public view, and legislators routinely leave their constituents in the dark on matters as simple as how they voted in committee. In Texas, by contrast, committee votes are public and robust debate is the rule, routinely spilling into shouting matches — or even fistfights — in the state Capitol.

Massachusetts’ Legislature has long had a poor reputation on transparency. A 2013 ranking from Open States, a civic engagement website, gave Massachusetts an F; and a 2015 study on ethics and transparency from the Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts a D+.

“It’s just like, really?” questioned first-term state Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat, in a 2 a.m. interview on the last day of the formal session. “Is that the way we do government?”

Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said he hopes lawmakers will return and approve legislation that had broad bipartisan consensus, such as tax credits for children or other dependents.

“There will be other things that get lost in more petty politicking,” Baxandall predicted. “But hopefully legislators can see the importance of some of these investments.”

Even if lawmakers do return to continue deliberations, though, it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“People have vacation plans,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano said in an interview last week. “I’m not going to start negotiating winners and losers of the [economic development bill] the first week of August.”

Senate president Karen E. Spilka, by contrast, said she’d like to pass legislation as soon as possible — “but we can’t dance alone.”

“We need to do something,” she added, “not just go on vacation.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff.