Eviction bill negotiations hit some bumps
May be telling as virtual bargaining on Beacon Hill accelerates
A RECENT BILL establishing a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures marked the Massachusetts Legislature’s first attempt to hammer out a tricky compromise bill using a conference committee during the coronavirus pandemic, and some Republican representatives are raising concerns about the process.
“It was a poor bill that was rushed through the process,” said Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who sat on the conference committee but did not sign on to the final bill. “The Legislature is supposed to be a deliberative process. I understand this is an emergency, but that doesn’t preclude us from doing the job we were elected to do.”
When the Massachusetts House and Senate need to hammer out a compromise bill, they generally appoint a conference committee made up of three senators and three representatives, two from the majority party and one from the minority in each branch. Conference committees generally meet in person behind closed doors, although some work can be done via phone or email.
The conference committee appointed to negotiate the terms of the housing bill was led by House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Housing Committee Chair Brendan Crighton, both Democrats. It included Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, House Housing Chair Kevin Honan, Rep. Peter Durant and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. The four Democrats – the committee chairs – signed the compromise bill. The Republicans – Durant and Tarr – did not.
Durant said the lack of a group meeting “made it extremely difficult to get your point across.” Durant said he did have phone calls with Michlewitz and expressed his concerns to him. But Durant does not know why his concerns, which centered around the interests of small landlords, were not addressed in the final bill and which members opposed them.
“I really do appreciate Aaron’s efforts, but it’s difficult to try to argue your point to members who differ from you when you can’t actually talk to them,” Durant said. “I don’t know who was against it or who was for it. I don’t know what the other five members’ positions were.”
On the Senate side, Tarr said he did not have a problem with the process. Tarr said he refused to sign onto the compromise bill for substantive reasons, because he wanted it to include more provisions related to mortgage forbearance for landlords and commercial properties. But, Tarr said, “I certainly was not dissatisfied with the process.” Tarr said he engaged in “fairly constant dialogue” with Crighton on a daily basis via phone and email, and they exchanged proposals back and forth.
Tarr said he missed the efficiency of having six people sitting around the table hashing out ideas, and he was concerned at the outset about what the process would look like, as the first conference committee since the pandemic started. But he was satisfied that lawmakers were able to exchange ideas and address complications in the bill. “It’s somewhat reassuring we were able to get through a bill that was not uncontroversial and move it forward,” Tarr said. “It bodes well for the future.”
The Democrats on the committee said the process did allow for input.
Crighton said the House and Senate versions of the bill were pretty similar to each other, so there were not many differences to work out. Crighton said phone calls worked well initially to lay out the parameters of the work, then emails were sent back and forth with drafts and discussion. Crighton said he was in close touch with the other senators and with Michlewitz. “We felt like we involved everybody and got good feedback from folks,” he said.
On the House side, Honan echoed Crighton’s comments that the House and Senate bills were not that different. “I think everyone had an opportunity to present to each other what they felt was most important,” Honan said.
Blake Webber, a spokesman for Michlewitz, said the conference committee did not meet but there was communication between House and Senate conferees to work out differences.
Lack of confidence in the process briefly held up the bill, when Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, stalled the bill for a day in the House. Dooley said he had expressed his concerns with the bill to Durant, but Durant was never given the chance to make a case to the rest of the committee.“There’s a reason the House of Representatives is not known for its transparency and this made it substantially worse than normal,” Dooley said. “Even though we’re in unusual times…the rule of law and the voice of the people still remains incredibly important and it shouldn’t be left up to one or two people to make decisions that affect the entire Commonwealth.”
The Massachusetts House released new temporary emergency rules on Monday to will govern formal legislative sessions, but those rules did not address conference committees.