IN A SHARP escalation of the infighting gripping Beacon Hill, the Senate took a major step Wednesday toward remaking the legislative process by ending the longstanding system of joint committees of the two branches and establishing separate Senate committees to consider bills.

The Senate voted 39-0 to instruct the Senate Rules Committee to develop plans to establish separate Senate committees. The move came after weeks of rising tension and no progress in a conference committee of House and Senate members that has been trying to resolve the conflict and come up with a system for handling bills that is acceptable to both branches.

“The clock is ticking and it was time to take a specific action so we could move forward,” Senate President Stan Rosenberg told reporters following the vote.

Rosenberg & Montigny 4-15-15
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, left, and Sen. Mark Montigny meet with reporters after Wednesday’s vote. “We’re not asking for anything radical here,” said Rosenberg.

The battle centers on the process used to shepherd bills through the Legislature.  Legislation is currently considered by joint committees that include both House and Senate members. Since representatives enjoy a nearly 2-to-1 membership advantage on most committees, the House can effectively control which bills are sent on for further consideration. Senators have complained that their bills are often bottled up in the joint committees, and that the practice is blocking them from operating as a coequal legislative branch.

The Senate has proposed changing the Legislature’s rules so that, with a majority vote of just the members of one branch on a joint committee, bills could be sent back to the chamber they originated in for further consideration and a vote.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo termed the proposal a “non-starter” soon after it was first put forth in February, and he hasn’t changed his mind. In fact, the speaker ratcheted up the war of words yesterday, penning an op-ed in the Boston Globe that lit into the Senate proposal. DeLeo called the proposed change “ill-advised” and an “impolitic and manufactured reaction to a non-existent problem.”

One senator said following the vote that the harsh tone of DeLeo’s op-ed pushed some senators who had been ambivalent about exercising the so-called “nuclear” option to support today’s move toward establishing separate committees.

DeLeo’s office declined to comment on today’s Senate action.

The Senate move did not dissolve the six-member conference committee that has been trying to resolve the standoff. But Senate leaders did not seem optimistic about the prospect of a solution coming from the panel.

Sen. Mark Montigny, who brought forward today’s order and is the lead Senate negotiator on the conference committee, said no meetings of the committee are currently scheduled. “I don’t want to place odds on it,” he said, “but if I felt that a resolution was imminent, I wouldn’t have recommended the order today.”

Rosenberg said the joint committee structure worked well for many years. Problems began to develop, he said, following adoption of new rules 20 years ago that allowed bills to be carried over from one year to the next during the Legislature’s two-year terms. He said hearings are now sometimes delayed as long as 15 months from the time a bill is initially filed in January of the first year of the two-year cycle. He said some bills are never returned to the branch whose member filed them.

“We’re not asking for anything that is radical here,” said Rosenberg. “The system has drifted away from this idea that the Senate’s bills are the Senate’s, and the House bills are the House’s.”

“This is simple stuff,” said Montigny. “Both sides still have all the opportunity to amend or kill a bill.”

Legislatures in 46 states operate with separate House and Senate committees. “If we can’t just come up with a reasonable alternative, it’s better to move on and do it the way 46 other states do it,” said Montigny. “Unless we’re ready, on the merits, to argue that 46 other states have gotten it wrong.”