Last-minute lawmaking for the Mass. legislature
Every second counted this weekend on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers said the wall clocks in the House Chamber showed two different times, the roll-call vote printer depicted a third, and their cellphones relayed still another.
"It's sort of like 'The Three Stooges,' " said Bradley Jones Jr., the House minority leader. "Everybody's got a different clock."
Some 19 months into their session, lawmakers waited until the last minutes to enact major pieces of legislation, with little time for members to review the bills and many advocates sidelined in the final decision-making.
The Legislature's rush to finish work on bills years in the making included major policy changes that were negotiated behind closed doors with sweeping implications for the state's energy industry and ratepayers, ride-hailing companies and taxis, and community development and job training. Rank-and-file lawmakers had, at some points, mere minutes to read over the agreements before they were hurried for a vote and sent to Governor Charlie Baker's desk.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Baker said the Legislature's transparency had increased over the years, in part because of technology, but said he was stumped about how to pull back the curtains from the sausage-making of passing legislation. The final vote was cast shortly after the midnight deadline on Monday morning.
"I don't have a good answer for the question about the end-of-the-session squeeze," the governor said. "That's happened as far back as I can remember, and I've been paying attention to this for over 20 years."
At the end of the last two-year legislative session, in 2014, a similarly frenetic set of meetings in the final days gave passage to bills designed to tackle the opioid-addiction crisis, tighten gun laws, and suspend the state sales tax for a weekend. The 2009-2010 session ended in acrimony, with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo at odds with Governor Deval Patrick's administration over legislation sanctioning casinos. The bill reemerged the next year and became law.
"Delaying the resolution of major issues until the final days of the legislative session is a time-honored tradition that has gone on over all the decades that I've been involved in Massachusetts government," said Michael Widmer, who last year stepped down after 23 years as the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed advocacy group. "But recognizing that there will always be some kind of rush in each legislative session, there is no reason why more of the major bills can't be resolved before the final two weeks."
State House veterans say the vanishing days on the calendar can prove a useful incentive for lawmakers to coalesce behind frequently contentious bills.
"There's sort of an inherent part of the process, for people to want to use the clock to their perceived benefit," said Jones, a North Reading Republican first elected in 1994.
In addition to the policy measures, the Democrat-run Legislature voted this weekend to override many of Baker's vetoes to the state budget, restoring a total of more than $200 million. But top legislative officials concede privately that Baker is expected to use his executive budget authority to cut much, if not all, of that spending.
Three major bills — regulating ride-hailing companies, requiring utilities to contract with more hydro- and wind power, and a measure aimed at economic development — all received final votes after midnight. Some members said they did not reach their homes until 4 a.m.
Lawmakers will continue to meet in informal sessions, when an individual member's objection can block a bill from advancing.
Many long-sought measures failed to reach the finish line this weekend, among them a ban on handheld cellphones while driving, a measure loosening the state's rules on workers' noncompetition contracts, a transfer of authority over liquor licenses from the state to cities and towns, the creation of a paid family and medical leave program for workers, and a boost in the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21.
This year's finale was made more difficult by deteriorating relations between House and Senate leaders, leaving several key bills on the table, even though both chambers are led by Democrats. And the July national conventions of both major political parties, drawing lawmakers to Cleveland and Philadelphia in the final two weeks of July, added further distractions.
The frenzied final hours prompted some senators to accuse the House, led by DeLeo, of being beholden to big-business interests.
"I think the House's operating procedure is: Do as little as possible and still be able to say you did stuff. I just think that's where Bob's at," said Senator Benjamin B. Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat. "A convenient and unnoticed byproduct of that is that doing as little as possible happens to line up with the priorities of the governor and some of the special interests, business groups in particular."
Senator Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat who like Downing is not seeking reelection, echoed the criticism, arguing that the Senate had paid closer attention to the working and middle classes.
"The idea of public policy is to blend all of the interests, which includes business, but it also includes the bottom-uppers, the workers, the citizens," Wolf said Monday. "In my six years there, more attention has been paid from the House side to the top-down, the business owners, the investors."
Through a spokesman, DeLeo declined to comment.
"I don't think that Speaker DeLeo's style is limited at all," said state Representative John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, defending the leader of the House. "What he has is an inclusive approach to legislation, not a frivolous approach to legislation."
Relations between the House and Senate began souring notably last year, after state Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg started implementing parliamentary reforms he said would increase transparency, while also granting the state Senate more power in legislative committees.
House leaders bucked, and friction built in a series of skirmishes over large-scale bills on charter-school expansion and energy, as well as smaller legislation, such as an inter-chamber battle over a tightly targeted veterans' benefits bill.
Some of that frustration bubbled over on Saturday, when Rosenberg blamed the House for slow-walking many of the Senate-backed measures.
He said the Senate had been "promised" bills like an energy omnibus "last year and then in the first quarter of this year, and then in the second quarter of this year," according to the State House News Service.
"We got it three weeks ago," Rosenberg said.