Historic legislative session to continue beyond traditional deadline

The notorious July 31 date will not loom over state lawmakers in the same way as usual this year.

Both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature reached a final agreement Thursday to scrap the end-of-July deadline that the House and Senate for decades have imposed on themselves to complete formal business in the second year of their two-year sessions.

Virtually every legislative session ends after a rush to wrap up work on complex -- and, often, procrastinated -- bills, and after experiencing an unprecedented disruption due to the COVID-19 outbreak that hit Massachusetts in March, legislative leaders opted to give themselves more time and flexibility to complete critical work.

Now, they will have about five more months in which they can call the full House and Senate rosters into session for roll call votes on pandemic-related bills, a spending plan and other business that may arise.

Formal sessions can now run effectively until the next makeup of the Legislature is inaugurated. On paper, the order amending the rules pushes back the deadline but does not set explicit parameters on what actions lawmakers can take after 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Senate President Karen Spilka said, however, that she intends to keep a more narrow focus.

"There may be some COVID-related emergency unforeseen," she told the News Service shortly after the Senate approved the extension. "We're hoping that's not the case, but as we know, the numbers are upticking a little bit. Across the country, it has been a resurgence. We're hoping not, but one thing we have learned from COVID is you can't foresee everything that may need to take place and everything we may need to act on, so it's important to give ourselves a little leeway."

Asked if she foresaw consideration in the fall of legislation such as a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire driver's licenses, Spilka replied, "The focus will be those three areas: budget-related, conference committee, and emergency-related for COVID-19 or some pandemic-related bills."

The rest of the week could remain frantic on Beacon Hill. Senators were advised to plan for a Friday formal session, and the House late on Thursday broke for the evening with plans to return Friday to continue working through amendments on major climate change legislation. The climate bill could potentially be another that moves before a private conference committee for negotiations with the Senate by week's end.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo first unveiled plans to extend the session on Wednesday, saying the Legislature needs to "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 5 months."

The House unanimously approved an order containing the extension on Wednesday after rejecting amendments from Republican leaders that would have required two weeks' notification before a formal session after July 31 and at least two hours for committee members to vote on any polls in that span.

The Senate then unveiled and unanimously approved its own version of the extension Thursday -- which contained effectively the same language -- before the House agreed to the revision.

Since 1995, the Legislature has agreed to follow Joint Rule 12A, which prohibits holding formal sessions after the third Wednesday in November in the first year of each two-year lawmaking term and after the last day of July in the second year.

Lawmakers typically shift their focus to campaigning in August, and they look to the July 31 deadline as a firewall between policymaking and the politics of the electoral season. The deadline also prevents major changes from occurring during lame-duck sessions after the elections and shortly before the next Legislature, including new members, get sworn in.

Beacon Hill does not grind to a complete halt after July in election years, though. Both branches are required to meet in regular informal sessions, during which any lawmaker can halt a bill by objecting, which renders bills that face any opposition almost impossible to pass.

Spilka said formal sessions would be scheduled in the ensuing months on an as-needed basis, and she said the Senate would "work very hard to give advance notice" to lawmakers about scheduling, though she did not specify an exact timeframe.

One of the most significant pieces of business legislators will address in their newly extended session is the annual state budget. In recent years, deliberations over the spending plan have frequently stretched into the fiscal year it is designed to cover, but this year's outlook remains clouded with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the economy and questions about the federal response.

Massachusetts likely faces a revenue shortfall of $2 billion to $8 billion below previous estimates, which could precipitate either unpopular tax hikes or massive cuts to the public sector. Those could be mitigated or avoided altogether if the federal government directs more relief money to states and municipalities, but negotiations in Washington are still ongoing.

The House and Senate agreed to a $16.5 billion interim budget that will cover spending through October, which Baker has yet to sign.

"We have a three-month budget right now, so we'll see when the feds do their work and we get our numbers," Spilka said when asked about plans for a fall budget debate. "We need to see what the track of it is for COVID-19 and our economic recovery. We are hopeful that COVID-19 will plateau and then start going down. We are hopeful our economic recovery keeps improving."

Other major proposals are still being hashed out privately through the conference committee process, such as police reform, multibillion-dollar borrowing bills for both transportation and IT infrastructure, and an economic development bill authorizing Baker's long-sought zoning reforms for housing.

Several more bills are on the verge of reaching closed-door talks, including health care legislation and bills deadling with climate change.

Baker, at a press conference in Andover on Thursday, said the Legislature would figure out what it should do on its own, but signaled that he supports the idea of remaining in session as long as there are major outstanding priorities left unfinished.

"There are many people who lost a lot of time between sort of the middle of March and the middle of June and I know the Legislature feels that way, and they have a number of pretty important elements that are currently working their way through the process," Baker said.

Baker specifically mentioned that he'd like to see his zoning reform proposal, known as "Housing Choices," find its way to his desk as part of the larger jobs bill. That proposal, the governor said, would facilitate the construction of more senior, affordable and workforce housing.

"I would love to see that find a way to get back. If that means they need to stay in session for stuff like that to make it through," Baker said.

Baker also said he was also "glad" to see the House take up a health care bill this week focused on tele-medicine, scope of practice of some health care providers and financial support for community hospitals. He also mentioned the importance of a transportation bond bill and police reform, as well as the need to put in place a permanent budget for fiscal 2021.

"I would love to see that find a way to get back. If that means they need to stay in session for stuff like that to make it through," Baker said.