Rushing big-ticket bills to the governor’s desk at the last minute. Getting derailed by a sloppy oversight of Massachusetts General Laws. Fumbling a $4 billion economic development package that included $1 billion in tax relief for working-class Bay Staters.
Is this really the best that Massachusetts legislators can do at the job for which we the people hired them? We think and we hope not.
Amid the crunch-time flurry of the formal session’s end — a tradition to which the Legislature has grown far too accustomed — lawmakers did manage to squeeze out some impactful legislation. A sweeping climate bill would better position Massachusetts toward its ambitious but necessary clean energy goals, including a big boost to offshore wind power. A landmark mental health bill would bring some much-needed parity to care, notably mandating that insurers cover an annual mental health checkup. Add in some timely gun control measures and a massive infrastructure bond bill that earmarks funding for the east west rail initiative, and we certainly can’t fault the Legislature for the issues it focused on. A workflow that sees so many of these crucial matters rammed through at the last minute, however, leaves something to be desired.
BOSTON — House and Senate negotiators struck early morning agreements Monday on sports betting and mental health access but will keep a significant economic development bill in conference committee as they continue to wrestle with an existing law that could trigger nearly $3 billion in tax relief this year.
For concerned constituents, it raises the question of whether lawmakers engage these issues in a sufficiently productive and serious manner before the session’s eleventh hour. For example, the Legislature was wise to update the state’s regulatory framework to deal with the relatively new and growing industry of legalizing sports betting. Yet because it was handled in the same late-game rush as everything else, voters might reasonably wonder about how lawmakers prioritized their limited time and attention as the clock ran down between a sports gambling bill and other, arguably more substantive matters. Such questions wouldn’t dangle so heavily if the Legislature handled its business more efficiently.
Yes, sessions will always be busier at the end with the trickier stuff that takes more time to hammer out, and there were some curveballs to field. Just how massive the surplus lawmakers were working with only fully materialized later in the session. And Chapter 62F, the obscure surplus-triggered state law that seemed to catch everyone on Beacon Hill off-guard, has not been in play for decades.
Still, lawmakers tossed themselves some curveballs as well. Was there really no one among House and Senate leadership — particularly those in point positions on taxation, revenue and spending — who had a fleeting familiarity with Chapter 62F? Further, we can’t help but wonder whether the continued allowance for legislators to attend sessions and vote virtually has needlessly thrown sand in the gears of negotiation and consensus-building.
The rushed process and divided attention is not the only procedural downside. It also relinquishes some considerable power to a lame-duck governor who now has dozens of bills on his desk with the Legislature out of session. If Gov. Charlie Baker were to veto any of these, the Legislature would have go into a special session if it wanted to preserve its right to debate any potential veto override.
Then, of course, there is the most obvious cost of this hurried late-session scrum: a $4 billion economic development bill lost in the shuffle that included critical investments in housing, hospitals, education, infrastructure and, last but not least, $1 billion in tax breaks for Massachusetts residents enduring economic turmoil. Fortunately, Bay Staters will likely still see some tax relief through Chapter 62F. Still, even the somewhat fiscally conservative Baker administration has argued the state could likely afford both the automatic Chapter 62F rebates and the proposed tax relief measures, given the historic revenue flowing into the commonwealth’s coffers. And the tax relief in the economic development bill would have been more targeted toward households that need it most — never mind the bill’s other key investments now sidelined.
Some Beacon Hill leaders have floated the idea of reupping the economic development bill at an informal session, although that would require unanimous consent from present legislators. That wouldn’t be necessary, though, if the Legislature could disrupt the inertia that so often carries multiple streams of its most important work to the last moment. This legislative session was a particularly egregious example, which we hope informs a course correction next session. While lawmakers deserve credit for the issues they’re focused on, those issues — and the voters of Massachusetts — deserve better.