Legislature needs to return to business

Massachusetts lawmakers should think of this August heat wave as, well, a cooling off period — a time to recharge, regroup, and then come back and finish one critical piece of business before the primary election.

While Governor Charlie Baker is busy signing, sorting, and otherwise dispatching the bills handed to him as lawmakers ended formal sessions in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, a critical piece of business was left undone, and that’s simply inexcusable. But it’s not irreparable.

The $4.5 billion economic development bill, complete with more than $1 billion in tax cuts and rebates, was left on the cutting room floor as the traditional legislative clock wound down. Housing funds, including money for workforce housing, stabilization grants for child care providers, millions for financially strained hospitals and community health centers, and millions in grants for reproductive health care centers, are all being held up while lawmakers campaign for re-election.

Hey, no irony there as they look to voters to return them to a job they seem to have abandoned in midstream.

Now there’s nothing written in stone about that July 31 date marking the end of the formal legislative session in the second year of the two-year session. It’s a legislative rule — Rule 12A adopted in 1995 and intended at the time to be a good government reform. It was meant to forestall post-election lame duck sessions where lawmakers — some newly defeated and others not facing voters for another two years — felt freer to indulge their whims.

But there are times and circumstances when legislative leaders need to err on the side of flexibility. This is one of those times.

After all, the rule was suspended two years ago, in the middle of the pandemic, as legislators continued to wrestle with budgetary issues, incoming federal funds, and a police reform bill spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the summer of protests that followed. It was an extraordinary year that showed how officials on Beacon Hill could respond to multiple crises in a fairly timely fashion.

So there is recent precedent for tossing out a rule that is keeping some vital work from being finished.

This, of course, is a crisis of the Legislature’s own making. The House and Senate had passed different versions of the monumental economic development bill — but nothing that could not be resolved. Then Baker announced that a 1986 voter-passed law was likely to result in another $2.5 billion or more in tax money being returned to taxpayers under a trigger provision that hadn’t kicked in since 1987.

The news paralyzed legislative leaders, halting not simply the tax cuts and rebates already in the bill but all of the spending provisions, especially all of the items, like housing production, that would be paid for with bonds. Borrowing provisions require roll call votes, which cannot happen during the informal sessions of the House and Senate, which are the only ones scheduled to be held between now and the end of the year.

Some lawmakers had talked about breaking off bits and pieces of the economic development bill that could pass without a roll call and weren’t controversial enough to encounter opposition in an informal session where even one dissenting lawmaker can stop action.

But House Speaker Ron Mariano told Globe reporters last week, “People have vacation plans. I’m not going to start negotiating winners and losers of the [economic development bill] the first week of August.”

Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement Monday, “I strongly believe that we could have done, and still must do, permanent tax relief for our residents. . . . The Senate is committed to working with our partners in the House and the administration to finally deliver the tax relief that residents deserve, as soon as we can.”

As she told Globe reporters, “We need to do something, not just go on vacation.”

Certainly not when people are waiting for those $250 tax rebate checks they were promised and others are looking for relief on child and dependent care deductions and enhanced renter deductions and property tax deductions for low income seniors.

On the spending side, some $400 million dedicated to housing production remains in limbo along with a similar amount for hospitals still hurting from the yeoman’s work they did for their communities during the pandemic. Another $300 million was supposed to go to the Unemployment Trust Fund to help minimize the effects of rising insurance costs employers face due to COVID-related layoffs.

In short, there is likely not a person or company or municipality that isn’t being affected today by the failure of the Legislature to get this bill passed. Surely the enormity of that impact warrants at least a brief suspension of the rules — and a brief return from vacation — to finish the job that truly didn’t end on Aug. 1.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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