Session’s midpoint triggering flurry of activity

Political News

BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)– By Wednesday night, legislators could advance to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk a nearly $4 billion spending bill making historic investments across the state, legislation redrawing the boundaries of the state’s nine congressional districts, and a bill to give genocide education a more prominent place in public middle and high schools.

The current members of the Legislature, who were sworn in back in January, are approaching the midpoint of their two-year session and looking to post some accomplishments that are more significant than the local land bills and alcoholic beverage licenses served up at most of their sessions. However, the sense of urgency is tempered due to a rules change adopted in 1995 that fundamentally changed the way legislative sessions play out at the end of years ending in odd numbers.

The so-called carryover joint rule allows all bills, except budgets and budget vetoes, to remain alive for the duration of each two-year legislative session, rather than die at the end of each annual session. The change gave lawmakers twice as much time to act, or delay action, on most bills. Or as former Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees put it in 1995, carryover most often means “we’ll do it mañana.”

The 1995 reforms also required formal sessions in the first year of a two-year session to end by the third Wednesday in November (today) and on July 31 in the second year of the session, when elections are also on the calendar in September and November. The major change has kept lawmakers from taking up most controversial items in the final weeks of odd-numbered years. It was adopted after holiday season activity in 1994 that led to quid pro quo charges – pay raises for legislators in exchange for a capital gains tax cut for Gov. William Weld.

The end of formal sessions doesn’t mean the Legislature is totally barred from conducting significant business through the end of the year, but it means there must be unanimous agreement among lawmakers to allow legislation to pass without a recorded vote. During an informal session between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 2016, for instance, the Legislature pushed through a six-month delay to key parts of the voter-approved marijuana legalization law.

As for Wednesday’s sessions, Democrats are under pressure to tie up loose ends on a bill spending American Rescue Plan Act and fiscal 2021 state budget surplus dollars. Competing House and Senate proposals were sent to a six-member conference committee for resolution on Monday. With Gov. Baker pressing them to act, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues are leading the talks over how to dole out the funds. Lawmakers are mindful of Joint Rule 12B governing the shelf life of budget bills.

The fate of early voting and mail-in voting in any elections held in early 2022 is uncertain since voting reforms are set to expire Dec. 15 and House leaders have not outlined a timetable for taking up a voting reform bill adopted this year by the Senate. Similarly, the Senate continues to refuse to debate popular sports betting legislation that has passed the House and had been a possible fall action item.

Support for unifying New Bedford and Fall River in one congressional district appears to be lacking, and the House and Senate appear poised to send a slightly redrafted bill (H 4256) laying out new district boundaries to Baker, along with one realigning eight Governor’s Council districts.

The genocide education bill gained momentum in October and November, and if lawmakers settle some differences, it could be enacted Wednesday.

Two bills that are expected to draw a lot of attention Wednesday will not make it to Baker’s desk. The Senate plans to tackle a mental health care access bill and the House, on the same day that the Health Policy Commission holds its annual cost trends hearing, is set to approve a bill giving more power to that state agency and giving community hospitals protection against competition from larger health care companies.

Gov. Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey were scheduled to give remarks at the cost trends hearing at noon.

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