fb-pixelMassachusetts legislature passes few bills Skip to main content

Mass. Legislature closes out least productive period in decades

Members of public employee unions rallied in front of the State House last week.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The caller was desperate. After seven years of paying her rent on time, through two rent increases during the pandemic, she said, her landlord last week delivered an eviction notice.

”I have not been able to find anything affordable in my area,” Maureen, who identified herself by her first name, pleaded to Governor Maura Healey during the Democrat’s monthly GBH radio appearance Monday. “I’ve been there for 18 years in Tyngsboro.”

Healey said she understood. She acknowledged that residents across the state are similarly struggling. “Maureen and her plight is, like, Example A of why we need to pass the Affordable Homes Act,” Healey said, referring to a sweeping housing bond bill she introduced in October — officially putting the onus on the Legislature.

Advertisement



When that could be is anyone’s guess. Nearly 11 months after it convened, the Legislature has failed to move proposals to Healey’s desk that would address some of the state’s most pressing issues — housing, gun control, and oversight of the beleaguered MBTA. And by Wednesday, lawmakers hadn’t yet sent Healey a nearly $3 billion spending bill designed to close out last fiscal year, a proposal that includes hundreds of millions in funding for homeless children and families.

Such a plodding pace is not new on Beacon Hill; just two years ago, one national study deemed the Massachusetts Legislature the least effective state legislative body in the country. Tension and power dynamics among lawmakers also contribute to glacial policy making, leading this session to divorced joint committees and backroom infighting over committee rules that, at times, have spilled into the public eye.

But the dysfunction has reached a new level. In the House, where any spending bill must originate, lawmakers have taken fewer votes at this point in their two-year session than any other going back two decades, a Globe review found. And it comes at a time of an escalating statewide housing crisis that advocacy groups say is screaming for a more urgent legislative response.

Advertisement



“Actions speak louder than words,” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing|Boston, which administers rental assistance programs and helps connect people with housing. “Folks tell us there is urgency. But the question is: Do the actions demonstrate that it is an urgent issue to be addressed? We have seen more deliberation, and less action.”

In just a year’s time, the pain wrought by the housing crisis has intensified by nearly every metric. There have been more than 35,000 eviction cases filed in the state’s housing court so far in 2023, a 25 percent jump from the same point last year, according to court data. The state has fielded more than 122,000 applications this year from low-income families for a rental assistance program known as RAFT. A crush of migrant families has pushed the emergency shelter program to unprecedented — and officials say, unsustainable — levels.

The budget the Legislature passed this summer includes major increases, such as a 27 percent boost in funding for RAFT alone, and made permanent a pandemic-era renter protection law. But it’s unclear whether the Legislature will seek to bolster those programs or others geared toward low- and middle-income housing on a wider scale before formal sessions are scheduled to wrap up next July.

In statements Tuesday, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka defended their records, boasting accomplishments made in the budget, as well as the passage of major bills such as a tax overhaul that expanded credits for families, seniors, renters, and low-income residents. Mariano added that the number of bills passed isn’t representative of the breadth of work accomplished, as many bills package together various policies.

Advertisement



“The challenges we face as a Commonwealth are complicated — and reaching consensus on the best solutions takes time,” said Gray Milkowski, a spokesperson for Spilka, an Ashland Democrat. “We have a two year session, and are confident we will have a productive 2024 as we continue to address the most pressing issues before us.”

Two men conversed in the halls of the Massachusetts State House while lawmakers deliberated on high-stakes bills on the final evening of the two-year formal legislative session on July 31, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The pattern of inefficiency sets Massachusetts apart. According to a 2021 study by Washington, D.C., information company FiscalNote, Massachusetts had the lowest ratio of bills passed to bills introduced in the country. A bill introduced in Colorado, for instance, was nearly 200 times more likely to be enacted than one introduced in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts passed 0.41 percent of bills introduced in 2021, making it the least effective state in the country, according to the study.

The still-pending supplemental budget has become emblematic of the Legislature’s slow-moving gears. The emergency shelter system is staggering amid a flood of homeless and migrant families; in at least one scenario posed by the Healey administration, it could run out of money by January. The Legislature also needs to pass the $2.8 billion supplemental budget to officially close the books on the fiscal year that ended nearly five months ago.

Advertisement



But lawmakers remain locked up in closed-door negotiations, leaving $250 million for the shelter program in limbo two weeks after the Legislature began its seven-week holiday break.

The package also includes nearly $400 million for raises for thousands of public employees, for which unions already bargained. Powerful public sector unions like the Massachusetts Teacher’s Union and the AFL-CIO are so peeved by the slowdown they are asking lawmakers to sign on to a letter prodding leadership, according to a draft copy obtained by the Globe.

“Many of these workers have gone years without a raise despite providing vital services to the Commonwealth,” the draft letter to both House and Senate Ways and Means chairs reads. “As their elected representatives, we owe them quick and decisive action immediately.”

Peter Enrich, a former law professor at Northeastern who served as general counsel to the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said supplemental budgets like the one up for debate are routine bills. But leadership exercises control by rolling in other items and leaving major bills until the last minute, he said, giving rank-and-file members little time to debate or hash things out.

“It’s frankly shameful,” said Enrich, who helps lead a coalition promoting legislative transparency. “The real impacts — the families who don’t know how their shelter is being taken care of or the employees coming into the holiday season without the money they have been owed for months — it’s really unacceptable.”

Advertisement



Whether or not the supplemental bill passes this year, this session still will rank among the least productive first years of session in decades. The House is poised to end the year having taken 70 roll call votes, the lowest at this point in the two-year session this century. Just four years ago, state representatives took twice as many by this point, and averaged more than 200 over the last decade, a Globe review found.

The votes, or lack thereof, are in part a byproduct of the Legislature’s increasing reliance on bulky, omnibus packages to move proposals big and small. But it also means lawmakers make public their policy positions far less often, leaving voters far less information.

The Legislature has produced some major changes in the past 11 months. A $1 billion tax package that Healey signed in October marked the most significant tax relief Beacon Hill has passed in two decades. The annual budget — which the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass — made free meals in public schools a permanent program and included funding for tuition for students attending community college nursing programs, among other changes.

But such sweeping bills are few and far between. Nearly 45 laws passed this year are specific to a town or city, either approving a liquor license or allowing a police officer or firefighter to serve past a certain age. Another 20 create sick leave banks for an employee or transfer a piece of land within a town — minor bills that effectively amount to legislative housekeeping. Two other bills were passed to simply keep government running because legislators were so late in passing the annual budget.

Boston Representative John Moran, who is serving his first term, said he spent Monday — when it appeared the House could vote on the supplemental budget but didn’t — “sitting here and hoping we would come to a resolution.”

“I know everyone is acting with a sense of urgency, but it probably doesn’t feel that way if you are waiting for that promised pay increase or if you’re part of the migrant population,” the South End Democrat said. “I wish I had a quick answer in terms of resolution. . . . We do need a solution.”


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.