House rules still stalled

GOP blocks debate for a second day

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER Brad Jones on Thursday blocked consideration of emergency rules for the Massachusetts House for the second day, amid a debate that is throwing off efforts by Gov. Charlie Baker to improve the state’s cash flow.

Baker, a Republican, filed a bill March 27 that would let Treasurer Deborah Goldberg borrow money this fiscal year to help the state’s cash flow, given the delayed income tax deadline. Under state law, passing a spending bill requires a roll call vote of the House and Senate, which can only happen when the bodies are in formal sessions.

A plan proposed by Democratic House leaders this week to move into formal session with remote participation has been held up amid debates over the details. The main dispute right now is over rules governing how members can sign up to speak on the House floor and how many times they can speak.

With no formal sessions, no action has been taken on Baker’s bill. Baker said Thursday that the bill is necessary so the state can borrow money before the fiscal year ends June 30. Baker said he initially hoped the bill would be signed by May 1 to send a positive message to rating agencies and it “really needs to happen sometime in the month of May.”

In a statement Wednesday, DeLeo blamed Republicans for holding up the bill. “The Republican action could imperil the state’s cash flow, require cuts to services for vulnerable populations during a public health crisis, and harm the state’s bond rating, which will only add to the future cost of borrowing,” DeLeo said.

But Jones, the Republican leader from North Reading, said GOP members offered to let the rules go into effect solely to pass the borrowing bill, then sunset, a suggestion Democrats rejected. Jones said representatives could also take initial steps to send the bill to the Senate, then save the roll call vote for final enactment, which would buy them more time to negotiate rules.

Jones noted that the members only saw the rules proposal Monday. “It is a dramatic change from the way that the Legislature has done business and people want some time to get their mind around that,” Jones said. He noted that the rules are not only about remote voting, but about remote debate and deliberations.

Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, said the proposed rules are fair since every member, Democrat or Republican, must abide by the same limits on who can speak when.

“I think the rules as proposed treat every member equally,” Wagner said. Wagner said the Republicans are simply trying to gain an advantage in the rules that they lack in numbers. There are just 31  Republicans in the 160-member House.

Wagner said Republicans appear to be saying that they will accept the rules for a piece of legislation they support, but they want to revisit them if another piece of legislation comes up. “I can’t quite wrap my arms around that thought process,” Wagner said.

Wagner said Democrats feel they need some method of returning to formal session, so they can begin to move more legislation forward, including bills that require a voice vote. “These are uncharted waters and unprecedented times and the rules necessarily require a structure that is different than what we consider normal operating procedure,” Wagner said.

The House will return for an informal session Monday. Jones said the parties have been negotiating and he is hopeful by Monday “we could get to a better place and develop consensus that would allow us to move forward.”

On the Senate side, Newton Democrat Cynthia Creem, who is chairing a committee looking at legislative procedures, said the Senate is prepared to hold a formal session to vote on the bond bill once it comes over from the House. Senators will be allowed to either vote in person, with social distancing precautions in place, to vote from their offices, or to stay home and send a letter to the clerk authorizing another senator to cast a vote on their behalf and specifying what their vote will be.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Creem said other than to pass the borrowing bill, senators hope to resume formal sessions by June 1.