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Mass. Legislative Leaders Consider Extending Session

With nine days remaining in the pandemic-disrupted legislative season and several major items still unresolved, Senate and House leaders have had some conversations about continuing past their traditional end-of-July deadline to continue deliberations on weighty bills.

Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday outlined a list of priorities, including the overdue fiscal 2021 budget and bills addressing climate change and police accountability, and said the Senate would be ready to work past July 31 if those bills are not completed. The branches would need to agree to an extension and House Speaker Robert DeLeo is open to "various scenarios" that involve going past July 31 if necessary, according to his office.

"There's no reason why we can't get most of this done by July 31, but if we need to work through these extraordinary circumstances and work past July 31, we will," Spilka told the News Service. She said she's had "initial discussions" with the House about the timeline.

Under joint House-Senate rules, July 31 marks the end of formal legislative sessions for the two-year term, after which lawmakers pivot into campaign mode ahead of the summer and fall elections and continue to meet in informal sessions for the rest of the year. Informal sessions are usually lightly attended, and all lawmakers present must agree to advance bills during such sessions, where recorded or roll call votes are not allowed.

In the second year of most terms, late July is marked by a frenzy of activity as lawmakers work to wrap up major bills and send them to the governor before the deadline. This year, the pace has been thrown off-course by the COVID-19 crisis that took over much of state government's focus, required the adoption of remote voting methods for legislative sessions, and sparked a collapse in state revenues.

"The Senate remains laser-focused on addressing the state budget, the COVID response and economic recovery. The big things — racial justice, clearly, we have health care that we're still hoping to get done, climate change legislation that sets a 2050 net-zero target," Spilka said. "Despite many curveballs that have been thrown our way this session, we firmly believe that we have acted and gotten our work done."

Spilka said the Senate sought to avoid an end-of-session bottleneck by spreading out its agenda and passing health care bills in November, February and June, and a climate bill in January that included carbon pricing language. The House last July passed a $1 billion bill, dubbed GreenWorks, to finance climate change infrastructure and resiliency grants, and while DeLeo, Spilka and Gov. Charlie Baker all back a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, that target has not been formalized in law.

The House plans to take up a health care bill this week and on Wednesday began debate on racial justice and police reform. National unrest over police killings of Black Americans thrust the issue of law enforcement accountability onto the legislative agenda, and the Senate passed its own bill last week.

Lawmakers have not yet presented a full spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, and budget-writers are waiting to have a better sense of both what the state collected in tax payments by the later July 15 filing deadline and what they can expect for any additional federal aid.

"If we do not have a full-year budget by the end of July, we will need to come back to get a budget done, and that timeline is going to be driven by understanding and knowing what the federal action is," Spilka said.

The Legislature over the years has adhered closely to the July 31 deadline that serves as a cutoff between policymaking and campaign seasons, and it seems likely that if Democrats agree to take up major matters beyond the deadline they will need to first agree on an agenda. There's also a question of whether they would assign themselves a new deadline to end formal sessions in 2020, or leave it open-ended.

"Given the COVID-19 emergency, Speaker DeLeo remains open to various scenarios involving going past 7/31, if necessary, and is in discussions with the Senate President and members on them," a DeLeo spokesperson said in a statement to the News Service.

Last week, DeLeo said the House "plans to address bills relating to police reform, healthcare, climate, economic development and budgetary matters in the coming weeks and looks forward to Senate action on transportation revenue, Greenworks, DCF and other items."

Spilka said she's hoping the House sends the Senate bills on economic development and housing. She also listed a pair of borrowing bills dealing with transportation and information technology as items the two branches need to complete.

The House and Senate passed different versions of each bond bill, and the IT bond bill is before a conference committee that first met Tuesday.

The Legislature's Joint Rule 12A specifies that all formal business in the second year of a session "be concluded not later than the last day of July of that calendar year." That rule requires a two-thirds vote from each branch to be suspended.

Another joint rule, Rule 26A, lays out the process of calling lawmakers back from recess into a special session — it requires written statements from 21 senators and 81 representatives saying there should be a special session, and the first vote at a special session is whether such a session is necessary.

Lawmakers could also attempt to resolve any unfinished business in informal sessions, but that can present obstacles as any one legislator's objection can halt a bill's progress.

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