Extension of Formal Legislative Sessions May Provide Oxygen for Left-of-Center Bills in Massachusetts Legislature

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Two days before the formal legislative period was set to expire, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo introduced a measure that could extend it until the end of the year – which would also extend the period to pass left-of-center legislation.

Conservatives who thought they were in the clear for 2020 on left-wing measures such as the ROE Act abortion expansion bill, physician-assisted suicide, and tax increases may have more work to do.

DeLeo is justifying the extension by referring to the coronavirus emergency, which disrupted the usual flow of business on Beacon Hill during the late winter and early spring. Legislative leaders have talked about wanting to finish major pieces of legislation such as a police reform bill and the state budget.

Controversial matters are not usually taken up by the state Legislature after formal sessions end at the end of July, because under the rules of each chamber during so-called informal sessions a single legislator can scrap a bill by objecting to it. (House Rule 44 states that “At an informal session … no new business shall be entertained, except by unanimous consent.”)

But if formal sessions are continuing past this week, then they may allow for more committee votes and floor votes on bills that have been kicking around since last year without much progress.

Thus, the clock that was thought to be running out may have many more minutes in it.

The parameters of the extension aren’t known yet, because the Massachusetts Senate also has to approve the rule change, and some negotiations could precede a final vote.

It takes a two-thirds majority in each chamber to change the rule, but that’s essentially a formality in the House, where Speaker DeLeo gets what he wants on procedural and many other matters.

The House quickly approved the rule change Wednesday, July 29 with Massachusetts House Order H. 4910, which would suspend Joint Rule 12A and provide instead that “the House and Senate may meet in formal sessions and conduct formal business subsequent to the last day of July 2020.”

Massachusetts Senate Karen Spilka put out a statement Wednesday agreeing with the idea of extending formal legislative sessions but not offering specifics.

“The Senate is pleased that the House has agreed with us to extend the session to complete vital legislation and stand ready to act as required by the COVID-19 crisis,” Spilka said in a written statement, according to State House News Service.

Joint Rule 12A provides that formal sessions during the second year of a legislative session (which is also, always, an election year) end July 31.

State legislators adopted the rule June 12, 1995 to try to repair their bruised public image, after passing a 55 percent pay raise the previous December during a lame-duck session the month after the election, according to an Associated Press news story published June 13, 1995 in The Transcript of North Adams. Some critics of the Legislature at the time were putting together a ballot question asking voters to approve a law shortening legislative sessions and decreasing legislators’ pay, according to an Associated Press story published June 13, 1995 in The Berkshire Eagle.

Then-Governor William Weld proposed the pay hike, and during the same period the state Legislature passed a decrease in the capital gains tax that Weld, a Republican, wanted, which led to accusations of a quid-pro-quo during a time when voters have the least power — right after an election.

The proposed ballot question shortening legislative sessions and cutting legislators’ pay did not materialize.

But the rule it helped inspire has been in effect for 25 years.

House leadership is apparently in no mood for restrictions. When House Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) proposed an amendment requiring any committee planning a vote on a bill after July 31 to give committee members at least two hours to vote, that amendment failed 51-108, according to State House News Service.

Another amendment that Jones proposed would have required at least 14 days’ notice for any formal session called after July 31. That amendment, according to State House News Service, failed 33-126.

State Representative Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee), the assistant majority leader, argued against the Republican amendments. State House News Service paraphrased Wagner’s comments this way:  “Wagner, speaking in opposition to the amendment, said lawmakers will need the ability to be flexible.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Massachusetts House of Representatives four to one —  127 to 31, with one independent and one vacancy.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative watchdog on spending and taxation, put out a statement Wednesday criticizing the proposed extension as “DeLeo’s Latest Power Play.”

“Speaker DeLeo wants the public to think he has their best interest at heart by extending the legislative session, but this is a power play to exert power over the Governor and bypass common sense good government rules that have been in place for decades. The move will only bolster the power of the Speaker’s office and increase DeLeo’s ability to pass a tax increase over the next 5 months. Lawmakers, who have spent much of the year dawdling, will now have the option of putting off a tough vote on tax increases until after the election,” said Paul D. Craney, spokesman for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, in a written statement.

Craney said he hopes the state Senate offers brakes on what appears in the House version to be a blank check for taking up dormant bills for the rest of the calendar year.

“Legislators should not be giving Speaker DeLeo a blank check. Hopefully the Senate will put forward an approach that is not an open-ended invitation to tax increases and other legislative mischief, with no end date in sight,” concluded Craney.

A spokesman for the House Speaker could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.