Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday passed an overdue $3 billion spending bill after dozens of Democrats showed up for informal House and Senate sessions to break a GOP logjam in chambers they firmly control.
Governor Maura Healey almost immediately signed the legislation, ending days of partisan drama. Democratic leaders and the House’s small GOP caucus blamed each other for slowing a bill that touches everyone from homeless and migrant families to state employee paychecks.
The bill stalled three separate times since Thursday after House Republicans used a procedural move to halt informal sessions, which are typically sparsely attended. The rules of informal sessions, which prohibit roll call votes and debate, can often empower a single lawmaker to derail legislation, which the GOP did by challenging whether enough of the chamber’s 159 representatives were present for a vote.
But not on Monday. With more than 100 lawmakers present for the House’s initial count, lawmakers established a rare quorum for the informal sitting. That allowed Democrats to sidestep the parliamentary hurdle Republicans had previously used, and vote, 105-14, to give initial approval to the $3 billion package.
Hours later, the Senate did the same, voting 20-3 along party lines. The House and Senate then quickly took two procedural votes and sent the bill to the governor’s desk. Healey signed it 18 minutes later — rare speed for such major legislation. In a statement, Healey said she was “grateful to our colleagues in the Legislature for their partnership.”
“The bottom line is, the supplemental budget is done,” state Senate President Karen E. Spilka told reporters Monday while standing alongside minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.
She said legislative leaders spent hours “working out this deal” that includes a range of critical spending. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Prior to Monday’s breakthrough, lawmakers had passed more blame than actual legislation, with Democrats accusing Republicans of being obstructionists and the small GOP caucus needling the controlling party for not taking simple steps — including getting enough lawmakers to simply show up — to pass the bill.
Republicans had opposed the bill’s provision providing $250 million for the state’s overwhelmed emergency shelter system, arguing it included no measures to stem the flow of migrant families that have overwhelmed the program. House minority leader Bradley H. Jones said Monday that Democrats bore responsibility for the bill not moving more quickly, in part because they failed to reach a deal on the bill before closing out formal sessions for the year last month.
“You guys control the House, Senate, and governor’s office. No excuses. Don’t try to put this off on anybody else,” Jones said of Democrats. “If you want to see why this didn’t happen in a timely fashion, grab a mirror and look at it.”
Asked later for his response, House Speaker Ron Mariano said, “Maybe we should.” But he said Republicans still have to bear responsibility for holding the bill up. He said he did not put out a formal request to Democrats compelling them to attend Monday’s session, saying there was “frustration” building over the delays.
“After the third strike, it was time to end it,” the Quincy Democrat said. “[Republicans] had three shots. I don’t know what they hoped to accomplish. Obviously nothing much has changed — except that the checks will go out three days later.”
Pressure had been mounting for weeks on lawmakers to act. Without a deal, the state has been unable to tie up the loose ends of the fiscal year that ended June 30 — a commonplace step that in recent years Democratic leaders have let slip later and later after the close of the fiscal year.
It dedicates nearly $400 million to fund union contracts covering tens of thousands of state employees — some of which were agreed to months ago — and sets aside millions of dollars to help cover damages from catastrophic floods and other natural disasters.
The package pours $250 million into the state’s emergency shelter system, and mandates that Healey use up to $50 million of the allotment to create overflow shelters for homeless families with nowhere else to go.
The administration last month began limiting how many people could stay in the shelter system, pushing those shut out by the new 7,500-family cap to a newly created waitlist. The package requires Healey to open overflow sites by Dec. 31, and keep them “operational” until the end of the fiscal year.
There were 7,532 families in the system as of Monday, according to state data.
Supporters of the bill were relieved that it finally passed. Andrea Park, an advocate and staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, stayed at the State House through the early hours of Nov. 16 when lawmakers failed to reach a deal on shelter funding in their final formal session of the year.
”Obviously, it’s very frustrating,” she said of the delay. “It felt so consequential right now. What’s happening right now is very real. … There’s over 100 families on the [emergency shelter] waitlist.”
Labor leaders, who previously lambasted Democratic leaders for not reaching an agreement sooner, had turned their fire in recent days on Republicans.
Jones, of North Reading, said the situation has “highlighted the dysfunction on Beacon Hill [and] highlighted the shortcomings of a one-party monopoly.”
“It’s done a disservice to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth,” he said. “We made a good attempt the last few days to highlight in a responsible way … some of the shortcomings without being obstructive. I know my Democratic colleagues will disagree. Our very existence to them is obstructive. I disagree. I think it’s necessary for a healthy democracy.”
Even as the spending bill neared approval, lawmakers harped on its slow crawl. On the Senate floor, Tarr, the minority leader, highlighted the 78 days between the governor filing the spending bill and negotiators reaching a compromise in mid-November.
”It is common for us to focus on the end of the process and feel a certain sense of urgency,” the Gloucester Republican said, using a poster board to illustrate the timeline. “When in fact oftentimes, the constraints of time are inflicted upon us by our own actions or our own inactions.”
Senators didn’t shy away from taking digs at the House during its short debate Monday. State Senator Michael Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief, said in a floor speech that if they got the bill to the governor and she signed it on Monday — which indeed happened — then the thousands of state employees who negotiated raises could see bigger paychecks as early as Dec. 22.
The Westport Democrat added, however, that because of delays “down the hall” — a reference to the House — they likely will not see retroactive pay until early January.