Sweating it out on Beacon Hill like it’s July
Economic development, transportation still outstanding
THE WEATHER IS cold, Christmas lights are still up. But on Beacon Hill, the mood is more like July 31 – the traditional last day of formal sessions during the two-year legislative session.
This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers extended formal sessions to pass a late state budget, address the pandemic, and deal with major legislation. Yet one tradition continued: the Beacon Hill pattern of waiting until the last minute to reach deals — or not — on significant legislation.
The Legislature did pass a budget, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed December 11. That gave the Legislature time to override Baker’s vetoes, which lawmakers have been doing the last few days. Lawmakers last month passed a police reform compromise, which Baker signed. Before Christmas, the Legislature sent Baker a compromise bill on telehealth, which he signed, and a bill banning the use of certain flame retardant chemicals in furniture and children’s goods. On Sunday, a conference committee released a major climate change bill, which was swiftly passed and sent to the governor.
But two major pieces of legislation remain in conference committees – an economic development bill and a transportation bond bill.
The House used its version to authorize sports betting, a complex policy decision with lobbying by powerful organizations, including sports teams and casinos. Both versions of the bill include some iteration of Baker’s Housing Choices bill, which would lower the municipal voting threshold for certain zoning decisions. The policy has support from a range of business, development and municipal interests, but has spurred concerns about whether it does enough to help renters and low-income residents.
While negotiators don’t talk about closed door discussions, the Boston Globe’s Jon Chesto suggested that possible factors behind the delay include myriad policy differences, House lead negotiator Aaron Michlewitz’s other demanding role as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and House upheaval with Robert DeLeo’s resignation as speaker and the selection of Ron Mariano to replace him.
The transportation bond bill would borrow billions of dollars to pay for various state transportation projects. Baker said Monday that its passage is a big deal, since the state needs more borrowing authorization to fund spring and summer construction projects and sign multi-year agreements involving federal reimbursement.
But House and Senate leaders appear to disagree on how much money the state can spend without raising new revenue. The House passed a transportation revenue bill before the pandemic broke out, but the Senate did not consider it.
Under legislative rules, a conference committee report must be released by 8 p.m. if it will be voted on the next day. Neither bill emerged Monday night. But lawmakers have a history of waiving their own rules on the last day of session, releasing complicated conference committee reports hours before the midnight end of session, giving lawmakers little time to review them before a vote.Other bills could also be passed today, but with sessions scheduled to begin at noon, the House and Senate will have just 12 hours to agree on final language. For example, a bill aimed at addressing campus sexual assault has advanced in the Senate, but not the House, although House leaders have said they are committed to passing it.
One disadvantage for lawmakers in late deal-making is Baker has 10 days to sign or veto legislation. Once the session ends, lawmakers cannot override a veto.