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State legislative session sputters to an end

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo addressed Boston's Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Westin Hotel in Copley Square.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

A transgender rights bill was kept under lock in a House committee. An overhaul of the state's weak public records law fell into legislative limbo. Major changes to the state's solar energy policy bogged down after heavy utility lobbying.

That's how a seemingly dysfunctional Legislature and its leadership — particularly in the House — adjourned for the year, having failed throughout the summer and fall to resolve those and numerous other significant initiatives at the State House.

"The policy outcomes are being derailed by the politics inside the building," said Senator Daniel A. Wolf, a Harwich Democrat.

Wolf's comments reflect the privately-expressed frustration and bewilderment of many lawmakers — along with activists for civil rights, the environment, education, and open government — over why, after months of sitting on important issues, the Legislature sputtered to a frustrating end.

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Even Governor Charlie Baker, whose high poll numbers and strong relations with legislative leaders give him the political muscle to pressure lawmakers, was gone. Just after the House unveiled its rewrite of his solar bill last week, he was boarding a plane to Florida for a three-day vacation. He was in Key West the following day when the House version of the public records law was released.

Some past governors — Michael Dukakis and Paul Cellucci, most notably — stayed at the State House in the days before the holiday break, often to the bitter end, using the leverage of the office to nudge the lawmakers.

Baker, a Republican who prides himself on working closely with the Democratic leadership, saw virtually no movement in the last several months on his legislative agenda. He had bills to curb opioid abuse and regulate ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. He wants the state to lift the cap on new charter schools. A key part of his energy plan — to increase the use of hydroelectric power by utilities in Massachusetts — has also languished.

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Baker spokesman Tim Buckley took issue with complaints that the governor was on vacation at a critical legislative juncture. He noted weekly meetings with the leadership and direct contact with lawmakers.

To be sure, the Massachusetts Legislature operates on a two-year cycle. Many issues left unresolved in 2015 could be settled in 2016. But the pace in recent weeks has been notably slow. When the governor introduced his opioid legislation, for instance, he challenged lawmakers to get a version on his desk by Thanksgiving. More recently, he said, "If the clock's still ticking and nothing's happened in February or March, I'm going to start to get pretty impatient."

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo's tight management style and control over the flow of legislation is getting much of the blame. Critics say he waited until the last minute to release the House version of important bills, leaving the Senate little time to digest and negotiate.

"It is extremely frustrating,'' said Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, a Democrat from Arlington. "These are serious issues, and to play games is absolutely shameful. . . . The people deserve better than that."

Donnelly, the assistant majority whip who played an active role developing the Senate version of the solar bill, blamed the legislative roadblock on a "very autocratic, very controlling style of leadership'' in the House.

A spokesman for DeLeo said he would not have any comment for this story.

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A joint legislative committee, for instance, passed legislation in July aimed at making it easier for citizens to obtain public records. The House offered a weaker version last week — just hours before the Legislature was forced by its rules to shut down for the year — leaving no time for a compromise to be worked out.

Legislation banning discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations made enough House members from conservative districts nervous that the leadership held it back in the final hours of the session. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has said the bill has strong support in the Senate.

The most complicated issue presented to House lawmakers in the final days before their break was legislation updating incentives that help finance the proliferation of solar panels across the state. The Senate version was approved in July. The House version was unveiled only Monday — and it contained a number of stark differences.

Environmentalists immediately denounced the House legislation, calling it overly friendly to utility companies, which had lobbied for weeks to bend it in their favor. Donnelly said the House legislation would threaten the ability of the solar industry to operate in Massachusetts. The differences were so wide that there was no chance for a negotiated settlement in the closing hours of the session.

The Legislature could act on a negotiated bill in an informal session before January — but only if no legislator objects. That delay plays into utilities' favor because the expiring subsidies will keep the solar industry from investing in Massachusetts projects.

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Environmentalists' grievances with the House boiled over Thursday, the day after the session ended, when George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, e-mailed supporters.

"Tom May, CEO of Eversource, may not be a registered lobbyist, but he has the best pipeline into the State House,'' he said.

May did not respond directly. But Eversource spokesman Michael Durand said May's lobbying on the bill at the State House is "a testament to how strongly we feel on this issue.'' The Senate bill, he argued, would heap an "extraordinary burden" on the state's electric customers, ranging, he said, from $7 billion to $8 billion.

Wolf said the last-minute rush by the House to deal with complex and controversial issues that had been hanging around for months — several of them already approved by the Senate — diminishes the quality of the Legislature's work.

"It is not good process if we are doing things in the 11th hour, particularly if it is not doing it in ways that involve a good data-based and a good collaborative legislative process,'' Wolf said.


Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.