Heading into what has traditionally been a crazed week of frenzied legislating, House leaders are also looking ahead to talks with their Senate counterparts about a rare session extension to address the overdue state budget and other major bills.
In an interview with the News Service late Friday night, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz discussed near-term House plans, the outlook for a state budget, the just-completed debate on a House policing reform bill and the possibility of extending formal sessions.
Lawmakers are almost 19 months into the two-year session, but many of their top priorities are unresolved and their own rules require formal sessions to end on Friday, July 31. It’s a rule that legislators have strictly adhered to over the years to insulate lawmaking from the political pressures associated with campaign season. Informal sessions, where bills can only advance with unanimous agreement, will continue throughout 2020.
But the Legislature will need to return to tackle a state budget “at the very least,” said DeLeo, who also suggested the possibility that the House and Senate might agree to return to consider bills that have been approved in each branch and are awaiting reconciliation in six-member conference committees.
“I would hate to see those not move on,” DeLeo said. “So I would imagine it would at least maybe things that are in conference but again, we really have to straighten that out and get consensus, or an agreement, with our Senate counterparts.”
On Wednesday, Senate President Karen Spilka also discussed the idea of formal sessions beyond July 31, alluding to disruptions caused by COVID-19.
“There’s no reason why we can’t get most of this done by July 31, but if we need to work through these extraordinary circumstances and work past July 31, we will,” she told the News Service.
Three major topics, economic development, health care, and policing reform, could be headed to conference committee by week’s end.
The House plans to take up a jobs bill on Monday afternoon, with 499 amendments pending to that bill, and tentative plans call for consideration of a health care bill on Tuesday, following a caucus among House Democrats on that issue Monday.
Beyond that, DeLeo was circumspect about other bills the House might tackle this week.
“I think we’re thinking of some other things, but I think it’s still in the thought process,” he said.
Major borrowing bills to finance investments in transportation and information technology have already been assigned to conference committees, which conduct their work without any transparency, and dueling House and Senate bills to hold police accountable are headed for conference this week.
The House on Friday rolled legalized sports betting and a housing production proposal into its economic development bill. Both branches have also approved bills to address climate change and reduce air pollution, but have so far failed to informally agree on a consensus bill or refer the issues to conference.
“It’s the end of the session and a unique session at that with COVID,” said Michlewitz, referencing the challenge of juggling multiple complex issues.
Former Sen. Ben Downing, a Democrat who served ten years in that branch, on Sunday criticized Beacon Hill for moving too slowly on pressing matters, identifying the political leadership’s inability to respond with urgency to major challenges as chief among the state’s weaknesses.
“Worsening economic and racial inequality, crumbling transportation systems, soaring housing costs within Greater Boston, and stagnant economies outside do not have to define our present or future,” Downing, who now works for the clean energy company Nexamp, wrote in a Commonwealth opinion piece. “I know how difficult this can be. I have been in these debates. What concerns me now is that on most issues, policymakers do not recognize the urgency of the moment.”
One bill DeLeo didn’t mention is critical — a $5.5 billion interim budget to keep state government operating in August. Gov. Charlie Baker last week also indicated a deal is in the works with legislators to deliver a clear signal to cities and towns about how much local aid they can expect over the next 11 months. It’s unclear whether that signal will come in the form of an announcement or some type of resolution that could be voted upon by the Legislature.
Massachusetts is one of eight states without a fiscal 2021 budget, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), which cautioned that some states will full-year budgets plan to return for special sessions to adjust spending plans in response to revenue declines.
On Beacon Hill, neither branch has even debated an annual spending plan since Baker offered his pre-pandemic $46.6 billion fiscal 2021 proposal.
The House set a July 1 deadline to produce a spending bill, but no bill emerged. On Friday night, DeLeo said lawmakers will need to return to Beacon Hill to tackle the budget but neither DeLeo nor Michlewitz offered any specific timeline. The timeline is still fluid, Michlewitz said, but talks are occurring.
“We’re working on that with our counterparts in the Senate, and with the administration,” he said. “In the middle of this police reform we’ve met a couple times throughout that so we’ve been trying to put on different hats at different points in times over the last week. So, we’re hopeful we’ll have some more work on that early next week.”
Massachusetts and other states are pleading with Congress and the White House to pass legislation offering significant fiscal relief to the states.
“This gentleman has a very difficult job to begin with,” DeLeo said, referring to Michlewitz. “Add that to the effect when you really don’t know how much money if any may you be getting from another source that’s going to help us get out of the $6 billion rut, shortfall that we find ourselves in, that makes it all the more difficult.”
A federal aid number, Deleo said, is “one of the major pieces that we really need before we can make some major decisions on what we’re able or not able to do.” He acknowledged “a real domino effect,” with local officials in Massachusetts “waiting very anxiously” about likely local aid numbers from the state.
DeLeo recalled asking Michlewitz about funding prospects for one budget item or another.
“He says, ‘I’m telling you. I really can’t give you a good answer because I really don’t know.’ And as I told him, this is like doing a guesstimate without the estimate. It’d be quite frankly just a simple guess,” Deleo said.
“It’s still about not wanting to give wrong information,” Michlewitz said. “We’d rather be patient. Hopefully, the patience will pay off in a lot of ways to help us fill some of these potential gaps that we have. But the timing on it is still very fluid.”
Hours before the News Service talked with DeLeo and Michlewitz, the state Department of Revenue reported that state tax collections in the fiscal year that ended June 30 are about $3 billion lower than what budget managers were expecting when they crafted the $43.3 billion state budget a year ago. Because the tax filing deadline was moved this year to July 15 the agency said the fiscal 2020 revenue total is expected to be updated over the next several weeks.
In addition to not making any tangible progress on a fiscal 2021 budget, Baker and the Legislature have not outlined a plan to address last year’s deficit, with the administration noting its borrowing capacity and saying repeatedly that it is monitoring state tax collections and federal fiscal assistance.
After failing to pass a bill with a veto-proof margin, the House is heading into a week of talks with the Senate on a controversial policing reform bill, and it appears they will need buy-in from Baker to get a law done by the end of the week, the stated goal of Baker and Beacon Hill leaders.
The bills cleared each branch, 93-66 in the House and 30-7 in the Senate, but many Democrats joined Republicans in opposition, asserting that the proposals are being rushed and will diminish the ability of police to do their work. Supporters say the bills deal with issues that have already been vetted for years and that victims of police violence should not have to wait for justice while the law enforcement community further lobbies state legislators.
“The matter was a difficult matter to discuss,” DeLeo said after Friday night’s session, describing the challenge of ensuring proper protections for people who have been victims of improper police conduct and protections for police to ensure they are able to effectively do their jobs.
DeLeo said he believed the bill’s supporters and opponents showed respect for one another over three days of discussions.
“I don’t think that people on either side had any anger at the other side,” he said. “But having said that, I think we wanted to try to get it as right, to make sure that everyone had the proper protections, whether it’s people Black and Brown or whether it was the members of the police force, to make sure that everyone was was treated fairly.”
While the debates over racism, no-knock warrants and police accountability were tense and the House often divided, Michlewitz said he was encouraged to see lawmakers who did attend the session in-person — many participated by phone — talking to one another constructively after some of the “tougher votes.”
“It was very constructive. I think people were very respectful and I think that we produced a stronger bill because of it,” Michlewitz said, adding, “We’re very happy with the results.”
*** This Article was published on WGBH.org on 7/26/2020 ***