End-of-session cram is no way to conduct legislative business

A lot got done, but the process was deeply flawed

THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE passed more substantive legislation in the last 18 days of its two-year session than it had in the previous 550. In those 18 days of July, it passed the state’s annual budget, over a dozen other major pieces of policy legislation, and over 100 minor bills. In just the last six days it passed over 65 bills. It was truly chaos when 34 pieces of legislation were passed in the last two days: a Saturday and a 23-hour marathon session starting on Sunday and ending after 10 a.m. on Monday.

This is NOT the way to conduct business in a democracy, nor to make good policies and write good laws. Unfortunately, this is, more or less, the Legislature’s modus operandi session after session.

In this end-of-session chaos, the Legislature passed the state’s $52 billion budget (with 197 outside sections tacked on), an $11 billion infrastructure bonding bill, protection for abortion rights, a major climate and energy bill, expanded access to mental health services, revised gun regulations, reform of the marijuana industry, legalization of sports betting, reformed governance for the state’s Soldiers’ Homes, and a host of other policy changes, many of which were tacked onto unrelated bills. These tacked on policy changes included a ban on child marriages, reform of demographic data collection on Asian Americans, promotion of teacher diversity, and on and on. Also in the mix of legislative actions were responses to vetoes and language changes by the governor to the budget bill and the climate and energy bill.

Many of the bills passed were rushed to a vote after emerging from closed-door, secretive negotiations of a conference committee, typically made up of just six legislators. These committees resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of bills. Some bills had lingered in a conference committee for weeks or even months, only to emerge in the waning hours of the session with votes being taken on them only hours after they had emerged. This gives the other 194 legislators – and theoretically the public – little opportunity to review them.

By the way, the rules for the operation of the joint House and Senate committees, which process almost all legislation, never emerged from the conference committee they were sent to in February, 2021, 17 months earlier! Therefore, the Legislature spent the whole session without permanent joint rules for the operation of its committees.

The $52 billion state budget emerged after 45 days in conference committee late on Sunday, July 17, more than two weeks after the fiscal year began. The budget bill is 455 pages long, including the 197 outside sections. Nonetheless, it was passed by the close of business the very next day. Massachusetts was again the last state in the country with a July 1 fiscal year to pass its budget.

There were important bills that were swallowed by the maelstrom and didn’t get passed, such as a major reform of the state’s early education and child care system; the so-called revenge porn bill that would make it illegal to share non-consensual pornography (something 48 other states have done); a badly needed nursing home reform bill (it died after two months in the House Ways and Means Committee, despite recommendations that it pass from the two relevant joint committees); any significant legislation to tackle the critical housing affordability issue; and a $4 billion economic development bill.

The economic development bill included one-time emergency rebates and some changes in taxes to help residents deal with high inflation. It would also have provided money to tackle the housing crisis, invest in environmental infrastructure, aid financially strained hospitals, assist small businesses, and much more. But it didn’t get passed.

The procrastination and manipulation that leave so much important legislating to the last hours of the session mean that, due to a lack of vetting and the last-minute scramble to get things done, the quality of legislation will suffer. Many of the bills that do pass will contain policies with unintended consequences or will include legal language that is unclear, unenforceable, and/or unimplementable.

The rushed process of writing and voting on bills (and of tacking on unrelated items to must-pass bills) mean that most legislators are ill-informed and the public is largely in the dark on the content and effects of legislation as it is passed, contrary to how democracy is supposed to work. Insiders, the legislative leadership and lobbyists with inside connections, have untoward, undemocratic influence and control.

Legislative leaders have tremendous leverage as they control the flow of legislation and set the priorities. The governor also ends up with tremendous leverage as he can veto legislation or send it back with changes when the Legislature has little opportunity – or, once the session has formally ended, no opportunity – to override a veto or respond to altered language.

The end-of-session logjam and chaos are perhaps both the highlight and ultimate result of the dysfunction of the Legislature. If remedied, Massachusetts would get better and more timely policies and laws; all legislators (not just leadership) and their constituents would be better informed, empowered, and able to participate; and true democracy would prosper.

John A. Lippitt, is a member of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts leadership team.