THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE on Wednesday voted to take the highly unusual step of extending formal sessions past July 31 to give lawmakers more time to complete their work in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 represents a threat to the health, safety and economic well-being of all the citizens of the Commonwealth,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a statement. “An insidious virus that has disrupted every aspect of our lives, it does not abide deadlines and it will require our constant vigilance well past July 31.”
House rules require lawmakers to finish their work by the end of July in the second year of the legislative session to give lawmakers time to campaign for reelection and avoid lame-duck legislating. The extension order will let the House continue to meet through the end of the year.
DeLeo said while the July 31 deadline typically serves an important purpose, the public health and fiscal challenges posed by the virus require the Legislature to remain in session. “No one can predict what might happen over the next five weeks, much less the next five months,” DeLeo said. “While we are cautiously optimistic that we will maintain the gains we have made here in the Commonwealth since the spring, we must remain prepared to address critical issues related to the health, safety, and economic well-being of the Commonwealth when and if they arise over the next five months.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner, introducing the extension order on the House floor, said the word “unprecedented” is “undoubtedly an understatement” to describe the current situation. “It’s hard really to find words that capture the changed world in which we live, and the challenges that each of us, whether as members of this Legislature or citizens of the Commonwealth, are impacted by each and every day,” Wagner said.
It became clear Tuesday, when lawmakers adopted a three-month interim budget to fund state government through October, that they planned to return to work this fall, if only to adopt a state budget.
Wagner said one reason to extend the session is to pass a budget once more information is available about federal stimulus revenues. He indicated that while the state plans to release preliminary funding numbers for education and local aid imminently, lawmakers hope to revisit those numbers later in the session.
The suspension of the rules will allow the Legislature to take up any bills needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, the Legislature has already passed spending bills, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, new data reporting requirements, and other COVID-related legislation.
“The need for that type of response during this period of the COVID pandemic necessarily requires that we have an ability to come in and to consider matters, in particular matters which relate to public policy and response to the COVID pandemic,” Wagner said.
An open question is whether the Legislature will take up non-pandemic related policy – either new bills or bills that are already in conference committee. Many priorities of the Legislature pre-pandemic – like addressing climate change, helping struggling community hospitals, or increasing the state’s housing stock – have gotten delayed by four months of focusing almost exclusively on pandemic-related policy.
There has been a glut of last-minute legislating this week as lawmakers scramble to pass key policy bills before the July 31 deadline. A controversial police reform bill is in a conference committee, as is a major transportation funding bill. Several bills on health care are being considered by either the House or the Senate this week. The House on Wednesday released a new climate-related bill. An economic development bill is being considered by both bodies, with the House including in its version a significant housing bill and the legalization of sports betting.
Wagner said in his remarks, “We will certainly endeavor to deal with as much of that as we can prior to the current deadline of July 31.”
DeLeo said extending the session will “ensure that the pressing matters debated by July 31 are resolved,” implying that, aside from COVID-related bills, only matters that were debated before the existing deadline, even if they are not resolved, will be considered later in the year.
The actual extension order says only that lawmakers can continue to meet past July 31, with no limit on what matters can be discussed.
Paul Craney, of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said the extension would upend a decades-old good government policy to prevent lawmakers from taking up legislation in a lame-duck session. Craney said in a statement that extending the session will give DeLeo the leverage to push through a tax increase.
“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,” Craney said in a statement.
The Senate will still have to take up its own extension order. Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement that the Senate supports extending the session “to complete vital legislation and stand ready to act as required by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Spilka said she does not believe the extension affects the urgency of passing the police reform bill. “I am confident that our colleagues in the House share our commitment to acting on this matter by the end of the week,” she said.
As in the House, it will be up to senators what they can take up in an extended session.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said Tuesday that he expects an extended session to focus only on the state budget. But Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who has been leading the Senate’s coronavirus response committee, said she would support a broader mandate. “I certainly would support additional work on issues that haven’t yet been taken up if necessary, including health care and climate,” Comerford said.
During the House debate, House Minority Leader Brad Jones introduced one amendment to provide 14 days’ notice of any legislative session and another amendment to give committee members at least two hours to read through any bill before voting on it in committee. Jones said the amendments are necessary to accommodate lawmaker and staff schedules, and to make sure lawmakers have time to read and understand any bill before they vote.
But Wagner said the extension order should be only about extending the session, not changing any rules. He worried that the 14-day requirement would make it hard to address emergency matters related to the pandemic.
Both of Jones’ amendments were rejected.