Hardball talks may leave little review time, require quick votes

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

As the time to strike important policy deals shrinks, so does the amount of time lawmakers will get to review bills prior to votes.

Joint legislative rules (11B) require conference committees, which choose to meet privately and do not provide updates, to file compromise bills before 8 o'clock in order for the proposals to be considered for votes the following day after 1 p.m. The rule is intended to ensure that legislators have enough time to review and understand the content of bills before voting on them.

But with less than a day and a half remaining for formal sessions and six major bills remaining tied up in conference, it's looking likely that the fair notice rule will be abandoned, as they have in previous sessions, in order to secure approvals of the accords, should they emerge.

In a nutshell, the long talks among Democrats on major bills addressing infrastructure investments, job creation, mental health care access, sports betting, and cannabis industry reforms, are slowly creating a new choice: suspend fair notice rules and vote to salvage bills, or abide by rules and risk having your legislative priorities kicked into the next session and start all over.

It's not a new situation. In 2016, House and Senate leaders went into the final hours of their last formal session, which was also on a Sunday that year, with four bills still tied up in conference committee. Similar situations played out in 2018, when Democrats were unable to strike deals on health care and education bills.

"Clearly, nothing motivates the Legislature like a deadline," House Minority Leader Brad Jones told the News Service this month as a glut of major bills remained on ice. "And, you know, we have to be motivated."

But Jones observed what many who work on Beacon Hill know. "Things take longer," he said.

Before any votes can occur, agreements announced with joint statements or press releases need to be produced, and those written words must be edited to ensure that the language of bills reflects the verbal agreements. It takes time.

"And then you have to repeat that over multiple times with multiple bills," said Jones. "Inevitably it creates a logjam at the end. Honestly, it's self-inflicted. But it's self-inflicted time and time again."


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