Legislative Recap | July 27 – 31

Article Source: The Statehouse News Service
Article Author: Matt Murphy

JULY 31, 2020…..On Beacon Hill, rules are made to be broken, and deadlines set to be missed.

But even by the Legislature’s loose standards, the decision this week to suspend a 25-year-old edict that otherwise would have required the House and Senate to finish their business by Friday at midnight was notable.

Facing backlash in 1995 for voting themselves a raise and passing a capital gains tax cut during a lame-duck session the year before, the Legislature adopted a rule requiring it to wrap up formal legislative business by July 31 in election years.

And the bright line has been relatively sacrosanct ever since.

But in this year of COVID-19, all bets are off — including, maybe, bets on professional sports. But we’ll get to that later.

The House vote on Wednesday to scrap Joint Rule 12A and allow the Legislature to continue meeting for the rest of the year in formal sessions took a lot of the air out of the normally pressure packed final week of session, when frantic sometimes only begins to describe the feeling in the halls.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and House Majority Leader Ron Mariano had a sidebar outside the chamber Tuesday afternoon during a busy week of legislating. The House voted the next day to continue formal sessions past July 31, and the Senate agreed Thursday. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

Nevertheless, both the House and Senate seemed to proceed at pace, determined to still get done as much of what they had pushed off to the last minute as possible. Though it wasn’t in the order that the Senate eventually adopted Thursday night, Senate President Karen Spilka hinted that she may seek to follow more informal guidelines for what is in order for post-July 31 sessions: a fiscal 2021 budget, conference committee reports, and any unforeseen emergency legislation tied to the pandemic.

The extension of the session was actually one of the top priorities of a group of Black staffers at the State House who wrote to Democratic leadership requesting more workplace support for employees of color in the Legislature, better recruitment, and the prioritization of racial justice impacts of bills under consideration.

The letter and organizers of the effort spoke to how Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) staffers have felt marginalized on Beacon Hill and subjected to racism in the workplace, and Spilka and DeLeo’s office both said they would meet with the group of about three dozen.

So what does it mean to extend the session?

Well, for starters, it means that there won’t be a repeat of two years ago when talks between the House and Senate over health care legislation collapsed at the eleventh hour on July 31. That could still happen, for any bill, but not until January.

It also means the Legislature has seized back a modicum of power from Gov. Charlie Baker and opened the door to the possibility of back-and-forth with the administration. A veto from the governor would no longer doom a bill because the Legislature couldn’t vote to override. And similarly, if Baker had ideas to amend, for example, the policing bill, there is now time to work through those issues.

But it also means no issue is truly dead for the year, including possible tax hikes that could surface before the election, or even after the Nov. 3 election during a lame-duck session.

Months after Spilka said she was “not certain now is the time to be talking about taxes,” Sen. Adam Hinds acknowledged this week that the Senate is indeed talking about taxes.

“We have reengaged the Senate revenue working group with a new mandate to consider the current reality and to think through a plan to meet potential challenges, depending on federal action and where we stand with the economic recovery and where the pandemic is,” Hinds said.

Don’t think that didn’t go unnoticed by House leaders, who chafed at the way Spilka dismissed this time as not right to consider the new taxes and fees to invest in transportation after House lawmakers took that vote in an election year, but before the pandemic hit.

But speaking of that elusive budget and what will be needed to balance it, Democratic leaders bought themselves some time by essentially seeing Gov. Charlie Baker’s $5.15 billion interim budget for August, and raising him enough cash to cover September and October as well.

Rather than going month-to-month, the Legislature passed a $16.5 billion interim budget that will cover government payroll and services through Oct. 31.

The move, which Baker said he would sign before appropriations run out on Saturday, gives budget officials flexibility to wait to see if Congress comes to the rescue of drowning states with a relief package that could dent or eliminate a looming budget problem expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Even though they can’t predict the pace of the economic recovery, or its slide backward, Baker and the Legislature also announced an agreement this week to level fund local government and school aid in fiscal 2021 (plus $107 million for inflation and other factors).

That agreement will allow cities and towns to better plan their own spending as they think about reopening schools in the fall.

Baker, however, was among the elected officials from Boston to Cape Cod warning that if Bay Staters don’t turn the music down and stop partying so hard this summer, there may not be a reopening of schools or any other businesses this fall. COVID-19 case numbers and the positive test rate have started to tick up ever so slightly, but enough to sound alarm bells.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo came right out and said it, as she tightened her state’s gathering size limits: “We’re partying too much,” she said.

Baker wasn’t as direct, but the sentiment was there as he said large parties causing potential “clusters” of infections were forcing his administration to think about its guidance for indoor and outdoor gatherings.

“The bigger issue is honestly the behavior generally at those, which is not socially distant, no masks and in some respects a lack of respect for how this virus works and how it moves from person to person,” Baker said Thursday.

A day later, the administration enlisted the help of Wally the Green Monster to help launch a #MaskUpMA social media campaign to warn against growing complacency. If Wally could also learn how to throw a curveball for strike, that might also help save the summer.

So if Spilka can be taken at her word that she’s not planning to slip, say, an immigration bill onto the fall agenda, what might get done this session?

In addition to a budget, Democrats and Gov. Baker all want to see a police licensing bill with limits on the use of force signed into law.

Negotiations are also underway, or soon to be underway, over a telemedicine bill, a climate action bill to set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and an economic development bill that may or may not legalize sports betting.

Both the House and Senate padded the job stimulus bill with Gov. Baker’s “Housing Choices” zoning reform, but only the House included an expansion of gambling in Massachusetts to seek revenues from bets on professional and college sports.

The bill would put Massachusetts in the company of 22 other states with sports betting, but the House version likely would make the state the first to include a sweetener for team owners by giving a small percentage of the profits to the owner of the venue in Massachusetts where a game or match gets played.

The Senate left sports betting out of its jobs bill, and Senate leaders, including Economic Development Committee Co-Chair Sen. Eric Lesser, had plenty to say about wanting to take up sports betting, perhaps as a standalone bill, and the need to thoroughly study the issue.

But it all sounded a lot like, “Not going to happen this year, sorry.”

The other bills in conference, and which Baker had said repeatedly he’d like to sign before the year is over, include long-term borrowing bills with billions of dollars for transportation and information technology, including support funding for remote learning.

If all this wasn’t enough, Baker took a timeout during his press conference in Andover on the campus of Pfizer, where a potential COVID-19 vaccine is being developed, to warn against planting mysterious seeds that have been arriving in the mail from foreign countries.

“Locusts? What’s next?” Baker muttered.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Keeping the party going on Beacon Hill.

SONG OF THE WEEK: Even if you think you can’t stop partying, Gov. Baker says you should try. Or at least wear a mask.