Beacon Hill leaves many key bills out of last-minute deal-making
With the clock ticking into Wednesday, the Massachusetts Legislature faced no shortage of stumbling blocks in its last-minute deal-making: Philosophical differences on health care. An untraversable divide on school funding. And the potential for drowned beavers.
Whether immense or obscure, the sand in the legislative gears took many forms on Beacon Hill this week, grinding priority bills — some sweeping, others seemingly simple — into a late-night scramble of delays and slow deaths at the end of the formal session.
Most attention centered on the collapse of two omnibus bills, one involving hundreds of millions of dollars in health care funding and the other, hundreds of thousands more in additional aid to schools.
Another bill championed by Senate President Karen E. Spilka would have allowed motorists to designate their gender as “X” on a driver’s license. But it was never completed, even as lawmakers blew past a midnight deadline to complete their work, after being saddled by a deluge of Republican amendments in the 11th hour. Other legislation billed as a response to a US Supreme Court decision on public unions also stalled, almost as quickly as it emerged.
“We had the votes to pass it in the House and the Senate, but the time ran out,” Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said of another bill that would have banned the use of conversion therapy to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of minors.
Versions of the legislation won initial approval in both chambers, but it was never enacted. And Isaacson doubts lawmakers would move on it in any remaining informal sessions, where a single ‘no’ vote can kill a bill.
“It was devastating to lose something you’ve worked on for six years and it’s so close to passage,” Isaacson said.
Other bills, for the moment, remain in limbo. A multi-faceted animal welfare bill that was passed by both branches in the spring required closed-door talks that, at times, centered on language that would make drowning an animal a criminal act punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Critics raised concerns, arguing that the state’s beaver populations are managed by trapping and drowning. It prompted negotiators to include language that calls on state officials to identify best practices, including “alternatives to drowning,” for trapping and pest control before the provision would take effect in June 2019.
“I wouldn’t say it was the main [issue],” said state Representative James J. O’Day, a House negotiator, “but I would say it was one of the bigger ones.”
As talks stretched into Tuesday, a compromise version of the bill didn’t hit the chambers’ floors until shortly before midnight.
The House and Senate unanimously approved it with little to no discussion, but it, too, never got a final vote to reach Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
It means final passage will have to come in an informal session, perhaps as early as Thursday, according to Senate aides.
For other bills, the path wasn’t so simple or assured. The so-called “Gender X” bill, which aims to accommodate those who identify as non-binary, passed the Senate in June, and Spilka touted its prospects when she was formally elected president, saying she was confident it would become law.
About two hours before midnight Tuesday, the House budget committee said it was preparing to release the bill. Then Representative James Lyons, an Andover Republican, filed 29 separate amendments — each one proposing an additional designation, such as neutrois or transgender.
Lyons opposes adding a third gender option — “There’s males and there’s females,” he said Wednesday — and the amendments promised to turn the clock against the bill.
“We have the right to file [amendments],” Lyons said. “And we can debate each amendment for a minimum of 10 minutes.”
Spilka said she couldn’t speak to why the bill stalled in the House, but she defended the Legislature’s ability to finish other crucial work, including an environmental bond bill, a renewable energy bill, and legislation addressing addiction.
“I agree that we can and must do better, and I look forward to working with the Speaker [Robert A. DeLeo] next session,” Spilka said, saying she has “ideas” about avoiding the biennial logjam. “I want to talk with my colleagues and certainly talk with the Speaker. There’s two chambers bills must go through.”
DeLeo, too, called the session productive, though acknowledged the failure to pass bills on health care and the school funding formula was “certainly frustrating on some levels.”
“The reality is that in every session only a fraction of the over 5,000 bills that are filed are enacted. And this session is no different,” he said. “I have no doubt that the work we have done thus far on health care and education funding will significantly inform and enhance our ultimate policy decisions next session. It’s better to get complex policy right.”
Yet, the crowded cutting room floor wasn’t a total surprise. As the Legislature became the last in the country to pass a state budget, Baker openly wondered if it would limit its ability to finish other work.
“I think in some cases,” he said Wednesday, “that turned out to be true.”