BOSTON (SHNS) – Senate-backed bills addressing climate change, prescription drugs and mental health are among the items on a pandemic-disrupted legislative agenda that Senate President Karen Spilka still wants to get over the finish line this session, along with a fiscal 2021 state budget and an $18 billion transportation borrowing bill the House approved in early March.
“My hope is that at some point in June we are able to start resuming our new normal and some semblance of folks being able to come back into the State House and have formal sessions, so I think we’ll have to see and be very flexible as to what happens,” Spilka said in an interview. “But, bottom line, we absolutely need to ensure that we have a budget in place for our state, our state programs and services and our cities and towns. They need to plan as well, and hopefully there will be some bills that get done.”
Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore continues to virtually meet with people about the bond bill, and the state “can’t kick the can down the road continuously on transportation funding and reform,” she said.
The multi-year $18 billion bond bill and an associated revenue package, intended to raise funds for transportation infrastructure by increasing taxes or fees on gasoline, corporations, ride-hailing services and vehicle purchases by rental car companies, were the last major bills to clear the House before Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency around COVID-19 and the normal patterns of daily life were put on hold in favor of social distancing.
The tax package faces a murkier future in the Senate. Asked about that bill, Spilka said, “I’m not certain that now is the time to be talking about taxes.”
Lawmakers lately have focused their attention on bills related to COVID-19 and its economic fallout, including a temporary eviction and foreclosure moratorium, a suspension of this year’s MCAS testing requirements, and additional liability protections for health care workers.
The House this week plans to hold its first formal session with remote voting options for members, to take up a bill that would allow the state to borrow money this fiscal year and not pay it back until June 31, 2021 as a means of bridging gaps in the state’s cash flow and tax collections. Gov. Charlie Baker last month announced the April 15 tax-filing deadline would be pushed back to July, mirroring a delay in the federal filing date.
Spilka said the Senate plans to take up that bill in the “near future,” during a formal session that “will be different than how we usually hold formals.” Rather than gathering their full membership into the chamber for formal sessions, both branches have been meeting in lightly attended informal sessions, where debate and recorded roll call votes are not allowed and any one lawmaker’s objection can halt a bill’s progress.
Lawmakers also recently passed bills expanding vote-by-mail options for spring municipal elections and special legislative elections this spring, contests that could inform the adoption of additional voting reforms.
Two special elections to fill Senate vacancies — the seats last held by Republican Sens. Vinny deMacedo of Plymouth and Don Humason of Westfield — are scheduled for May 19. Though the state remains in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases in late April, Spilka said she believes that date is still feasible.
“I believe that the vast majority of people will hopefully vote by mail, and then the towns will need much smaller polling assistance, and they’ll work with the secretary of state’s office to accommodate, but again the hope is, and the desire, to really direct people to mail-in ballots,” the Ashland Democrat said.
White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said during a weekend TV appearance that “social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases.”
Spilka said planning should also begin now for what the Sept. 1 state primary and Nov. 3 general election will look like, with the public health landscape for the fall still uncertain.
“It’s hard to know what November will be like, but we need to start planning now to give time to the secretary of state, to give time to all our cities and towns’ clerks offices to plan on a much more robust voting by mail, with a decent time period and early voting,” she said.
A pair of recently filed Senate bills, both now pending before the Election Laws Committee, address the topic of mail-in ballots for this fall’s elections.
One, filed by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (S 2653), establishes a five-day late-August early voting period before the primary and would allow voters to request that an early-voting ballot be mailed to their home and then return their completed ballot by mail.
Another bill, filed in the Senate by Sen. Becca Rausch (S 2654) and in the House by Rep. Adrian Madaro (HD 5026), would send every registered voter a ballot by mail with a prepaid return envelope for both the Sept. 1 primary election and the Nov. 3 general election. Unenrolled primary voters would need to first request a specific party’s ballot. The bill would also permanently declare the November Election Day as a legal holiday.
A supplemental spending bill the Senate passed last October included a five-day early voting period before the Sept. 1 primary, but that language did not survive conference committee negotiations with the House and was not included in the version that ultimately became law.