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Emergency Coronavirus Housing Bill Takes Detour In Mass. House

The Massachusetts State House and flag. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House and flag. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A COVID-19 housing stability bill imposing a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions during the state of emergency stalled on Thursday after a Norfolk Republican objected and ended the House's session for the day.

A day after House and Senate Democrats reached a deal on the legislation, Rep. Shawn Dooley effectively halted the bill's further progress with a procedural motion. House lawmakers could potentially take up the bill Friday, when they meet next at 2 p.m. in an informal session.

During informal sessions attended by just a few legislators and where it is not possible to take recorded votes, any House member has the ability to stop proceedings if they have a concern or objection by doubting the presence of a quorum.

Dooley did not state the reason for his objection on the House floor and said he was working on a statement Thursday night but did not provide it to State House News Service before publication.

When Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, nearly ended last Thursday's session after proposing an amendment to the bill, legislative leaders sent it to a conference committee consisting of four Democrats and two Republicans. The committee's Democratic leaders announced a deal on the legislation on Wednesday, but appeared unable to win over their Republican counterparts, Durant and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.

Housing Committee Chairman Kevin Honan of Boston, one of two House Democrats on the conference committee, said he was "very disappointed" by Dooley's objections and was not aware that the Republican had concerns with the legislation.

"We obviously reached a critical point, yesterday and the day before, in our negotiations with the Senate, though the concerns were not presented to us at the critical point of negotiation," he told the News Service. "We feel very strongly that the product, the final product of the conference committee, is good and it will help a lot of people in Massachusetts."

In the Senate on Thursday, Tarr acknowledged that he hadn't signed the conference committee report because he believes there is more work to be done around forbearance and the impact that landlords will feel if they do not receive rent payments.

It takes 81 members to reach a quorum in the House — a far greater number than the handful of representatives who typically attend informal sessions, particularly during the COVID-19 era. If a member doubts the presence of a quorum, under the House's internal rules, "no other business may be transacted or motions entertained except a declaration of adjournment or a recess by the Speaker."

Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) chaired Thursday's session and said "it's unfortunate that the compromise wasn't reached to people's satisfaction."

"But we'll keep trying," she told reporters outside the chamber. "It's my understanding that Representative Dooley is not satisfied with the conference committee report and therefore he exercised his right to object and call for a quorum, which, as you know, stops everything."

Rep. Mike Connolly, who filed the original House bill last month, said the legislation is "critical" to supporting the public health objective of asking people to stay home.

"I'm really disappointed we couldn't enact the Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium bill today," the Cambridge Democrat wrote in a statement to SHNS. "It's also worth noting that this legislation includes protections and supports for a wide range of interests, including renters, homeowners, landlords, small businesses and local non-profits."

While the House and Senate have both accepted the conference report, the branches still need to vote on enactment to move the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk. Honan's pitch to win over Dooley's support rests on the fact that many housing advocates offered their opinions and thoughts on the legislation.

"A lot of people were involved in this and they're going to be very upset," Honan said. "I think, Rep. Dooley upon further review, hopefully, will reconsider his position here and allow these protections, for tenants and foreclosure homeowners as well, to protect people who are in need, who've lost their employment."

State House News Service's Sam Doran and Chris Lisinski contributed reporting.

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