Town's State House Team Embroiled in House-Senate Fight
On the same day House and Senate Democrats struck a budget deal after weeks of private deliberations, branch leaders appear to have also entered new territory in their ongoing procedural battles.
Three Senate co-chairs of joint committees say their House counterparts chose to act unilaterally Friday by sending out electronic polls to committee members looking to advance a handful of bills -- including those dealing with equity in agriculture, a park renaming in Cambridge, and a cyber incident response team -- without seeking their input or permission. The polls, which contained some of the senators' own proposals, closed over the weekend.
Sens. Rebecca Rausch and Michael Moore said their House co-chairs gave them about 10 minutes' notice before sending polls to their respective committees -- the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources and the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity. Sen. Jo Comerford, acting chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, said the poll from her House counterpart landed in her inbox Friday and "took us all by surprise."
Those senators told the News Service the maneuvers seem to violate certain committee operating rules -- or mark a departure from the collaborative relationships they were working to develop with House partners this session as thousands of bills percolate through the joint committee process. The House co-chairs did not directly answer News Service questions about whether they were ordered by House leadership to send the polls without involving Senate partners in the decision-making process, a claim made by Rausch.
While the procedural squabble may seem like "inside baseball," Moore warned the latest splintering between the House and Senate could ultimately "destroy" the joint committee model, in which committee members from both branches are supposed to be working together to move bills forward through negotiations.
"Long-term if this process stays, it really does, I think it hurts the whole concept of why we have committee hearings," Moore said. "If you don't have mutual consent, the House has the numbers on the committee -- they basically dictate the direction of every committee ... The foundation of our government is that it's based on compromise."
Under longstanding legislative rules, the 160-member House has more members on joint legislative committees than the Senate, which has 40 members. Joint committees tend to have six Senate members and 11 House members, including a chair and vice chair from each branch, and ranking Republican minority members. The committee members often take guidance from the committee co-chairs.
The lack of compromise has hindered the so-called Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy from operating in unison this session -- the panel's House and Senate members have been holding separate hearings. Also, an omnibus gun reform bill that House leaders wanted to advance before the traditional August break is instead idling due to an ongoing House and Senate disagreement over which committee to refer it to for a public hearing.
On the TUE Committee, House and Senate members have convened apart since May as co-chairs Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Mike Barrett continue sparring over committee rules. The fighting on the committee, which handles major climate policy matters, began when Barrett said Roy announced a committee hearing without his consent.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano said Tuesday that no joint committees have filed their internal rules yet, which would outline how members cast votes on bills, approve redrafts, and the time duration for polls conducted through email to stay open, among other protocols. The deadline for joint committees to submit their "rules of procedure" was March 16.
As a default, some joint committees have instead relied on abiding by overarching Joint Rules of the Senate and House of Representatives, Moore said. One provision states that "all joint standing committees shall schedule committee hearings and executive sessions upon agreement of the chairs." Executive sessions are a forum where committee members meet to vote on bills.
The topic of committee chairs needing to agree on conducting a poll on bills -- the crux of the issue that a handful of senators are now grappling with -- is not explicitly addressed in those rules.
Comerford said she has a "very close working relationship" with co-chair Rep. Paul Schmid, and that she called him to voice her concern that committee rules had been broken due to the poll he issued. Under usual circumstances, Comerford said, co-chairs of joint committees engage in "productive conversation" about which bills should be released and their next committee destinations.
"There was no communication with the Senate ... I can't describe the motivation that makes rational sense," Comerford said. "Certainly the bills could pass even if senators voted 'no' or reserved their rights because House members have the votes on these joint committees."
Rausch said she was told by her co-chair, Rep. Daniel Cahill, that he had a "directive" to report out several bills and that it came from the "higher-ups in the House." From her understanding, Rausch said, the directive came from Speaker Ron Mariano's office.
Rausch said she tried to negotiate with Cahill in the roughly 10-minute notice period ahead of the poll being distributed, but she said there "was no substantive discussion about it" and "no space for negotiating."
Asked whether Mariano had directed the House co-chairs to issue the polls, a spokesperson for the Quincy Democrat referred the News Service to Majority Leader Michael Moran, the House's lead negotiator on the joint rules conference committee that's yet to reach an accord since first meeting in February.
An aide to the Brighton Democrat wouldn't say whether Mariano or other House leadership had directed the polls be sent out Friday without involving Senate counterparts.
"Recognizing the importance of moving these critical policy bills and local matters through the legislative process, the House Chairs of the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity; the Joint Committee on Agriculture; Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy and Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources initiated committee polls with the recommendation of 'ought to pass,'" Moran said in a statement to the News Service. "The legislation that was polled included both House and Senate bills, reported to both Chambers, that received public hearings in the spring and early summer, and have since been awaiting legislative action. In accordance with our understanding of the rules, the House acted to move these bills through the legislative process as we continue to pursue a productive legislative session."
Joint committees have until Feb. 7, 2024 to make recommendations on bills in this two-year session, according to Joint Rules, although releasing bills from committee before that biennnial deadline is common. Despite a bevy of committee hearings in recent months and agendas containing dozens of bills, very few bills have emerged for consideration in either branch so far this year.
Moore said he contacted Senate President Karen Spilka after his House co-chair, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, notified him about the poll.
"The direction that we go in now is really up to the Senate president," Moore told the News Service. "It's really in her hands, her legal counsel and the speaker to resolve."
A Spilka spokesperson referred the News Service to a May 18 statement about joint committee rules when asked about the House-initiated polls. The Ashland Democrat said that the "joint cooperation of the chairs on fundamental matters of orders, such as scheduling hearings and votes" is "firmly enshrined" within the joint rules.
"This framework has allowed us to accomplish a great deal of important work across committees, including passing two landmark climate bills last session," Spilka said. "So that we can continue advancing policy that both supports the residents of our Commonwealth and provides national leadership on pressing issues, I expect all Chairs to follow agreed-upon joint rules and to follow the long-established precedent of using committee rules from the previous session if unable to reach a new agreement on committee rules."
Moore argued the concepts of executive session and polling are interwined, which creates an ambiguous situation over a potential Joint Rules violation.
The Senate clerk may have some authority to reject the outcome of polls, in effect blocking bills from moving forward that do not adhere to Joint Rules, Moore said, citing an interpretation that he and a few Senate colleagues have been discussing. But Moore said that's not an official position from Spilka -- and that authority is not mentioned in the Joint Rules.
House Clerk Steven James told the News Service that his office does not "inquire into the internal workings" of committees.
To ensure committee reports are valid, staff must submit them to the Legislature's online platform and indicate decisions made by a committee, James said. Staff must also send an email that authorizes the clerk to sign the bill on behalf of the chair or other House member who is carrying the bill for the committee, he said.
In the AITC poll, House co-chair Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier recommended that redrafted proposals from Reps. Sean Garballey and Simon Cataldo and Sen. Jason Lewis (H 64 / S 33) creating a legislative commission analyzing automated decision-making by government in the commonwealth should be reported favorably to the House, according to a spokesperson for Moore.
Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield, also recommended that legislation from Sen. Barry Finegold (S 32) establishing a Massachusetts Cyber Incident Response Team should be reported favorably to the Senate, the Moore aide said.
"The matters before the committee represent pressing issues facing our Commonwealth and merit urgent action by the Legislature," Farley-Bouvier said in a statement to the News Service. "I am grateful to Speaker Ron Mariano and the Members of the Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity Committee for prioritizing these two pieces of legislation."
The AITC Committee was established last session, and the past co-chairs never agreed to internal rules, Moore said. While the overall Joint Rules don't explicitly cover polling, Moore called Friday's poll "breaking past practice."
Moore said he didn't have an option to stop the poll -- which the Millbury Democrat said he and Senate members didn't vote in -- from Farley-Bouvier.
Farley-Bouvier told Moore she wouldn't have a problem with him sending out his own committee poll, Moore told the News Service. Moore said he would "possibly" pursue that tactic, but he added, "I think that would just further reinforce deterioration of the committee process."
Rausch said the poll from the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources recommended that a bill from Rep. Jim Hawkins (H 825) "will take the Senate bill" from Sen. Paul Feeney (S 487) and "report the entire thing back to the House." The bills deal with pesticide management at public colleges, child care centers and school-age child care programs.
Rausch said the poll also included a proposal she sponsored (S 568) to improve public and emergency access to the Elm Bank Reservation in Wellesley and Dover, as well as a Sen. Sal DiDomenico bill (S 469) to rename North Point Park in Cambridge to Richard McKinnon Park.
Rausch said Friday she wouldn't participate in the poll because it constituted a "direct violation" of standing committee rules from the "environment committee" from the 2019-2020 session. Those rules, according to the Needham Democrat, stated that polls are supposed to be issued "only upon mutual agreement of both chairs."
Rausch said she was also told by co-chair Cahill that the House would not agree to release any bills from committee until January 2024, a timeline that was not familiar to other senators interviewed by the News Service.
"They're moving forward unilaterally in a flagrant violation of the rules and after specifically saying that they wouldn't even discuss moving bills until next year," Rausch said. "That is highly problematic, and it's really disappointing. It's really unfortunate."
Cahill did not respond to News Service questions about committee rules being violated and whether he had acted on Mariano's directive to send the poll. But the Lynn Democrat did provide a summary of the poll.
"All House committee members voted to move the following bills favorably out of committee; the Senators on the committee declined to participate," Cahill said in a statement.
The poll sent on behalf of Schmid, House co-chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, contained proposals from Rep. Natalie Blais and Comerford (H 87 / S 41) to establish a commission to promote equity in the agricultural industry for "socially disadvantaged groups in the commonwealth." There was also a Rep. William Straus bill (H 909) authorizing municipalities to buy water rights from cranberry growers.
Comerford said she loves her bill on agriculture equity and is "very interested" in moving it forward. But Comerford said she couldn't vote on the bill that was in "violation of our joint rules."
In a statement, Schmid said 11 committee members voted to report the bills out favorably, three reserved their rights and two didn't respond.
"The committee is pleased to have taken this first step in its work to aid the Commonwealthâ€™s farmers and looks forwards [sic] to our continued efforts this session," Schmid said.
Yet the trajectory of bills advanced through one-sided polls remains murky, Comerford indicated.
"I think we're in uncharted territory. I know senators, and I believe House members, are here to pass good policies and good budgets," she said. "I believe that we can do that together ... I believe that we must for our constituents."
Aides for Sen. Adam Gomez and Rep. Daniel Donahue, the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy, did not respond to requests for comment about procedural disputes in their body.
A Friday poll obtained by the News Service shows that Donahue requested two redrafted bills receive a favorable report from the committee and be released to the House. They were from Rep. Michael Soter and Sen. Ryan Fattman (H 119 / S 50) clarifying eligibility for medical use marijuana.
"Please respond to this email by 12:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, 2023 to indicate whether you agree with the Committee's reporting these matters as recommended, or if you wish to dissent, reserve rights, or have any questions regarding this legislation," Donahue said in the poll, which was emailed by the committee's legal counsel on Friday afternoon.
-- State House News Service