Five months into the year, Massachusetts lawmakers have touted passing “historic funding” and holding a budget debate that’s never been “smoother.” They can also lay claim to something else, a Globe review found: perhaps the least productive start to a legislative session in at least 40 years.
With major bills still lumbering along and committees haggling over internal rules, just 10 pieces of legislation have passed into law since state lawmakers opened their two-year session in early January. The slow start is likely historic, and, current and former Beacon Hill officials say, reflective of a Democratic-controlled body where power is overly concentrated at the top and where leaders increasingly rely on hulking, omnibus legislation to move important policy.
Most of this year’s laws are relatively minor, such as creating a sick leave bank for a state employee or waiving the age limit for a specific Boston Police officer. Thanks to a legal quirk, one of the most significant changes — the creation of a new housing secretary under Governor Maura Healey — became law even without legislative approval. That type of proposal takes effect within 60 days of the governor filing it, unless the Legislature directly votes it down.
There are also no bills currently on Healey’s desk. That means, absent a burst of post-Memorial Day activity, the number of new laws would be the fewest passed through May in the opening year of the Legislature’s session since at least 1983, according to a Globe review of legislative records. It also is a fraction of the number that became law by June in either Charlie Baker’s or Deval Patrick’s first year as governor, 2015 and 2007, respectively.
“It’s disappointing, but it also doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat and former 12-term state representative. “There is no, and has not been for a long time any, sense of urgency.”
Legislative inertia, particularly early in the two-year session, is not novel on Beacon Hill. Just 16 and 15 bills had become law by June in the beginning of the last two legislative sessions, respectively. Over the last decade, roughly 20 bills on average have made it into law by this point in session, according to the Globe analysis.
“I like slow and steady — and getting it right,” said Representative Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat. The current leaders, he added, are having “a lot of conversation behind closed doors in terms of filing some big stuff.”
“I’m not privy to talk about it,” he added, “but people are working.”
Still, this session is sluggish in other ways. The Massachusetts House hasn’t held a roll call vote — with each member on record — since late April, and it’s scheduled to close the month without holding a single formal session in May. That kind of drought hasn’t happened at any point this decade, the Globe’s review found.
Disagreement between House and Senate leaders over their internal committee rules has also spilled into the public, turning normally closed-door discussions into a highly unusual public spat. The inter-chamber quarrel has grown so pointed, at least one joint panel — the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee — temporarily split into two groups, each holding their own hearings on legislation twice in as many weeks.
Other committees have continued to meet together, and the 30-plus joint hearings that have been held or scheduled this month would match, if not exceed, the amount in May from two and four years ago. But it’s unclear if, or how, the ongoing rules dispute could disrupt the flow of bills as lawmakers edge deeper into admittedly “uncharted territory.”
Legislative leaders said that the bickering over rules has not slowed them and noted that the number of laws alone isn’t a complete barometer of their productivity.
“The substance of the work that the House has done so far this session is significant, and directly impacts the lives of residents across the Commonwealth,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said in a statement.
So far this year, both chambers have passed versions of a $56 billion budget proposal, though they still must negotiate a final plan. The House passed a $1 billion plan overhauling the state tax code in April, and the Senate indicated it could unveil its own tax relief package in the coming weeks. But no tax relief measure has yet been sent to Healey’s desk.
The chambers in March passed, and Healey signed, a $389 million supplemental spending bill that, beyond pumping millions into the state’s struggling emergency shelter system, was also packed with 30-plus pages of policy initiatives, including provisions to extend several pandemic-era rules.
“While I am eager to accomplish more this session,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in a statement, “I am confident that the Senate is on pace to tackle the pressing issues before us in a thoughtful and collaborative way.”
To others, however, the pace and process are reflective of a gradually changing Legislature. Both chambers have increasingly funneled power to its top leaders, a trend that’s included abolishing term limits for the House speaker and, just in recent months, the Senate president, too. That, former and current officials say, has ensured that decision-making on which bills advance for votes stays in the hands of only a few within a 200-seat Legislature.
“No one would confuse the current day Legislature with a New England town meeting or an Athenian hillside,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a former lawmaker and Brighton Democrat. “Individual activity is not encouraged. It’s not encouraged by the membership either.”
The chambers have also increasingly shown a preference for bundling legislation into hulking, omnibus packages as opposed to pursuing smaller, individual bills that may fall under a similar umbrella, such as economic development or environmental legislation.
The approach of bundling bills has its advantages, lawmakers argue, including allowing them to better consider policy proposals in concert with one another. The budget itself is also a popular vehicle for pushing through major policy, particularly if it’s tied to newly allotted money.
“We’re far more aware that things just don’t exist in the silo and unintended consequences do pop up,” said state Representative Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat who’s served in the Legislature since 2001. “Most bills aren’t simple anymore.”
That has other consequences: It can encourage horse-trading, making it difficult for individual lawmakers to oppose a certain policy if it’s sutured to their own priorities within a wider bill.
“And then there’s just less debate, and less of an ability to focus on the particulars of the issue,” said Jonathan Hecht, a Democrat and former Watertown state representative who, along with Kaufman, is now part of a coalition that promotes legislative transparency.
“You want it to be good quality,” he said of legislation. “But particularly in a state that’s dominated by Democrats who believe in using law and using public agencies and public resources to address problems, I don’t think many people would say we don’t have a lot of problems that need to be addressed, big and small.”
Healey, now nearing five months of governor, has not bristled at the pace of bills flowing to her desk. The Cambridge Democrat has spent her early tenure lobbying lawmakers on supporting the wide-ranging tax relief plan she first pushed in January and has celebrated legislative milestones both big and small.
“Our administration looks forward to continued collaboration with our legislative partners to move forward on our shared goals of making Massachusetts more affordable, competitive, and equitable.” said Karissa Hand, a Healey spokeswoman.
Her predecessors at least had more to ink. Baker had signed nearly 30 bills by June of his first year, while 44 bills became law in Patrick’s first few months.
“The idea of passing an individual bill that has a specific [policy] goal, those days have pretty much gone,” Galvin said. “That’s not the way the Legislature functions anymore.”