It was 5:20 a.m. by the hallway clock as Sen. Michael Rodrigues talked to the State House press corps in an early-morning scrum Monday. Rodrigues announced the branches had reached agreement on sports betting legalization and a mental health care access bill, while putting the economic development bill on ice. [Sam Doran/SHNS]
Chris Lisinski, State House News Service
AUG. 5, 2022.....It didn't have to be like this.
Historic 23-hour sessions in a desperate attempt to wrap up important work, deals struck by sleep-deprived lawmakers to advance major bills that had been in play for a year and a half, and the subsequent collapse of ideas that had broad, veto-proof support -- none of that actually needed to happen the way it did.
Yes, legislative rules have for more than two decades called for House and Senate formal sessions to end on July 31 in even-numbered years. Unlike rules that require fair notice to review substantive bills or that aim to prevent overnight sessions, the July 31 rule is one that the Legislature has obeyed over the years.
But this year, with Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka managing their first end-of-July affair together, they had a rough go of it. The deadlines that were supposed to trigger deals simply didn't.
So the Democrats chose to extend their stop-start session into the equivalent of quadruple overtime.
In the extended periods, some got some winks in while others got to compromises on bills to legalize sports betting, expand mental health care access and overhaul regulations in the recreational marijuana industry.
It's likely that Gov. Charlie Baker will be on board with those three bills, but his response to a reworked, sweeping clean energy bill is more of a question mark. Lawmakers embraced some of his changes to the original legislation, such as eliminating the offshore wind price cap, but left others on the cutting room floor.
Democrats gambled that Baker, in his final year in office, would rather sign into law another landmark climate change bill than veto it over amendments he did not secure. If that blows up in their faces, it could be a repeat of the last session, when Baker spiked an eleventh-hour bill committing to net-zero emissions by 2050 and then worked with lawmakers on a compromise at the start of the 2021-2022 term.
The list of casualties from the overnight session is topped by one of the most surprising outcomes in modern legislative history: Democrats tossed a $4 billion bill with featuring $1 billion in tax relief, which had cleared both branches unanimously and was just awaiting final compromise, back onto the shelf with a shrug.
Legislative leaders decided they could not figure out what to do with the entire package in the final days, after they were apparently blindsided late last week by Baker announcing that Massachusetts is on track to trigger a 1986 tax cap law requiring close to $3 billion to be returned to taxpayers.
"We thought it was the wisest choice to make to make sure that we do this properly," a bleary-eyed House Speaker Ron Mariano said shortly after 5:30 a.m. Monday. "Getting a $3 billion bill dropped on you the week before you're about to finalize the year-end finances doesn't lead to good decision-making."
Mariano and other top Democrats said they could still return to sections of the economic development bill during their informal sessions, but its demise spills a jar of complications all over other government work.
Left in a suspended state is an injection of millions of dollars into the unemployment insurance trust fund, legislative mechanics designed to fund the clean energy bill, and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending on housing production, human service providers and offshore wind port development.
"It's going to fund our hospitals who are just crashing right now. It's going to fund nursing homes who don't have staff. It's going to fund home health aides to take care of all of our vulnerable elderly and children. It's got incredible workforce development in it. It's got priorities for municipalities and regional priorities," Sen. Cindy Friedman said around 11:15 p.m. Sunday, making what would prove to be an unsuccessful case to advance the bill's spending quickly and circle back to tax relief.
The voter-approved tax cap law sometimes referred to as Chapter 62F continued to rankle lawmakers even after they hit pause on their own tax relief package. Mariano called it a "stunt" and seemed aggrieved that the Baker administration had not alerted House and Senate leaders about the potential trigger earlier and more explicitly. Baker fired back that publicly available reports "made very clear that tax revenue last year got the commonwealth very close to triggering this tax cap."
Other legislative priorities fell by the wayside during the comedown from the weekend, too.
Lawmakers voted to order a statewide pause on all construction or expansion of prisons and jails for the next five years, but Baker on Thursday struck that measure from a general government bond bill.
The branches also sought in their annual state budget to eliminate any costs incarcerated people and their families face to make phone calls or other forms of communication, and that fell into a legislative black hole when the Senate agreed to attach some Baker-sought reforms to the criminal dangerousness hearing process to the free calls measure. That put the branches at a late-session impasse on the pre-trial detention policy, and the phone calls measure bogged out in that dispute.
On both fronts, Democrats did not prioritize their policy goals enough to accomplish them at a time when they still had the option to override a veto, letting them fall victim, at least for now, to a skeptical governor and their own procrastination.
Working up to the last minute has been a hallmark of the Legislature for years, but the Sunday-into-Monday affair went beyond at least two decades of tradition. Since 2002, the latest either branch gaveled out of an even-year July 31 formal session was 2:08 a.m.
Even last session, when business was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and lawmakers agreed to meet in formal sessions for the duration of the term, the closing effort on Jan. 5, 2021 stretched until only -- "only" -- 4:41 a.m. in the Senate the next day, about five and a half hours earlier than the chamber adjourned Monday.
The lawmakers who remained in and around the House and Senate chambers were clearly taking whatever steps they could to stay awake. Senators congregated on the balcony to watch the sun rise, and representatives waiting in line at the just-opened Capitol Coffee Shop commiserated about why it was taking so long to get the final bills to the floor. Shortly after 7:30 a.m., Sen. William Brownsberger nodded to Senate Clerk Michael Hurley, and the two crouched down on the rostrum for a set of push-ups.
Unprecedented steps were not limited to the Legislature this week, either.
After federal overseers launched the second-ever probe of its kind, and a passenger jumped into the Mystic River to escape a rush hour train that burst into flames, and officials slashed service because dispatchers were working 20-hour shifts, the MBTA continued its expedition into uncharted territory by announcing plans to close the entire Orange Line from Malden to Jamaica Plain for 30 days.
The shutdown set to begin Aug. 19 marks the first time the T has ever taken down a full subway line for maintenance, and MBTA officials followed it up by announcing two days later they would also scrap train service for a similar period between Government Center and Union Square on the Green Line.
The derailed train of Damocles here hanging over the T is a Federal Transit Administration investigation, the second of its kind, that already flagged delayed maintenance as a prominent safety issue among other persistent safety failures. Federal officials expect to produce a final report, whose scope could broaden and call for even more urgent action, this month.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Democrats who control the Legislature offered their own crash-course in philosophy: do the ends they accomplished justify the means of the extraordinary ways they accomplished them?
SONG OF THE WEEK: They might never have expected to share this experience, but senators were able to gather together in their place of work and watch the red sunrise.