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Mass. Senate approves bill extending pandemic policies that are set to expire July 15

Massachusetts Statehouse front entrance

A bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday would extend until Dec. 15, 2023, several policies dealing with remote or virtual participation. The policies are set to expire July 15.

During its first session of the final month of serious legislating, the Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday released and passed a bill further extending some pandemic-era policies.

Several policies dealing with remote or virtual participation would be kept alive until Dec. 15, 2023, under the bill, including the ability for towns to hold representative town meetings through remote participation, public bodies’ ability to meet entirely by remote participation without a physical quorum, the ability of select boards to set the quorum number for representative or open town meetings, and the authorization for remote participation in nonprofit corporate meetings, according to a bill summary provided by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The bill would also extend a policy allowing notaries public to perform notarial acts over real-time videoconference until Dec. 15, 2023. It requires that landlords serving a notice to quit for nonpayment of rent must provide tenants with information on their legal rights, availability of rental assistance programs, and any legal restrictions on residential evictions, according to the summary.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee reported the bill Tuesday morning ahead of a lightly attended Senate session and Chairman Michael Rodrigues explained that there is some urgency to the bill.

“These measures are set to expire on the 15th of July, next week. These measures that are in the bill were the same measures that we voted on in the FY23 operating budget back in May and we thought it’d be best if we move these separately in the bill to ensure that these measures do get passed onto the governor’s desk in time to be effective,” Rodrigues said Tuesday, alluding to the facts that the combination of an overdue fiscal year 2023 state budget that has not yet been finalized and Gov. Charlie Baker’s 10-day review window could push the budget’s effective date out later than July 15. “All of the measures in this bill were voted on in the budget.”

Fifteen of the 17 members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted to advance the bill to the full Senate on Tuesday morning while two — Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman — reserved their rights and did not weigh in either favorably or unfavorably.

The Senate entered a lengthy recess at 11:20 a.m. when amendments were filed by Sens. Patricia Jehlen, Cynthia Friedman and Tarr. With limited discussion, the Senate rejected Tarr’s amendment (which would have extended the availability of prescription drug coupons) and adopted those filed by Friedman (delaying enforcement of health care provider notice requirements for out-of-network bills until Jan. 1, 2025) and Jehlen (extending to Dec. 15, 2023 the ability for assisted living nurses to provide basic health services to residents).

The House did not take up the COVID-era extensions bill Tuesday, meaning that the earliest it could reach the governor’s desk is Thursday, when both branches are planning to hold formal sessions. Though Baker signed a very similar suite of policy extensions last summer within about 13 hours of it clearing the Legislature, there is no guarantee that the bill the Senate passed Tuesday will become law before the policies it extends expire on July 15. Baker’s review period would extend until July 17 if the bill gets to his desk Thursday.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Ronald Mariano told the News Service that the House “recognizes the time-sensitive nature of the bill” and will review it as soon as the Senate’s paperwork is processed and sent to the House. The House will meet in an informal session Wednesday.

Other COVID-era policies have been extended permanently, like mail-in voting and expanded early voting. Those allowances proved popular when they were relied upon for the 2020 elections and Baker last month signed a law making them permanent features in Massachusetts elections.

Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons and others filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn that law and the Supreme Judicial Court plans to hear arguments Wednesday related to the MassGOP’s request for an injunction to block Secretary of State William Galvin from mailing ballot applications to more than 4.7 million voters later this month.

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