After it drew objections, Massachusetts House leaders retreated Tuesday from a plan to raise the threshold required for recorded votes during remote, formal sessions that they hope to begin holding Thursday to process important bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With certain bills requiring recorded roll call votes, such as critical borrowing legislation tied to impacts from the unfolding pandemic, the House is set on Wednesday to consider a package of 20 temporary emergency rules. If adopted, the House then plans to launch a rare experiment: holding formal sessions during which representatives would be allowed to participate by using their phones instead of actually attending sessions at the largely closed Statehouse.
The House has 158 members, and a small number of them, representing the leadership of both major parties, will attempt to orchestrate these livestreamed sessions from within the chamber, while wearing masks, social distancing, and listening to remote remarks that will be amplified on the PA system. It's a stark departure from decades of deliberations that have largely turned on face-to-face conversations, and an untested process that no one is sure about.
During a teleconference caucus Tuesday, House Democrats discussed a draft plan that would have raised the threshold to secure a roll call vote from 10 to 25 percent, or roughly 15 members to 40 members, depending on the number of representatives participating. House Minority Leader Brad Jones called that a "big problem" and Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge also objected.
Later, after the caucus, House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a statement saying that House members had "expressed their preference for the current threshold for roll call votes — understanding it could potentially slow down the process."
DeLeo said the higher threshold had been included "out of consideration for those Members and staff who would be required to be physically in the House Chamber." An official explained he was referring to potential impacts from lengthy pandemic sessions while experimenting with an entirely new process.
"We believe that these updated emergency rules and procedures will enable us to pass legislation essential to the preservation of public health, safety, and convenience as we confront this crisis," DeLeo said.
Connolly called remote sessions a "remarkable and unprecedented step and totally necessary in response to this ongoing public health emergency" and said that such sessions "should allow us to continue working to address the many challenges and hardships our constituents are now facing."
Meeting without a quorum, the House and Senate have passed important bills responding to pandemic impacts on voice votes and with the unanimous consent of the few lawmakers who attend sessions. But borrowing bills, land takings and veto overrides are among the measures that require the kind of recorded, roll call votes only permitted during formal sessions, and the emergency rules could facilitate more legislative activity.
The bill House leaders want to take up in the first remote session Thursday is a House Ways and Means report on legislation (H 4593) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to enable the Treasury to borrow an unspecified amount this fiscal year and pay it back by the end of next fiscal year.
House leaders opted against holding a public hearing on the bill, so public discussion of the bill has been limited. It's unclear how much of the borrowing is tied to impacts of postponing the annual tax-filing deadline from April 15 to July 15 and to what extent policymakers are depending on borrowing to plug a big hole in the fiscal 2020 state budget revenue base created by forced economic shutdowns that are now scheduled to run until at least May 18.
In his filing letter to lawmakers, Baker said the emergency bill's passage is needed "to protect the state's budgetary and cash balances during a public health emergency." An administration aide, asked about fiscal 2020 budget balancing plans, referenced the borrowing bill and federal pandemic relief aid.
Baker announced plans to shift the tax-filing deadline on March 27, after many people had already filed but before the traditional pre-deadline rush.
House and Senate Democrats seven weeks into the state of emergency have not outlined a budget proposal for fiscal 2021, which begins in two months. A senior state education official told the Board of Education on Tuesday that he was aware of informal talks about the branches joining together on a joint budget plan, though it's unclear if that will occur. The emergency rules require the House Ways and Means Committee to report an annual budget bill by July 1, 2020.
Economists told lawmakers this month that state tax revenues, a major source of aid to cities and towns, may run more than $4 billion below projections in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny forecast "unprecedented strain" on the state budget.
State tax collections for the first half of April in Massachusetts totaled $877 million, down $293 million or 25% compared to the same period last year. The state's full-month receipts in April 2019 totaled $4.323 billion, and the big current question is how far tax receipts will fall this month, and over the last three full months of fiscal 2020.
The state has $3.5 billion saved up in its savings account, and Senate President Karen Spilka said Tuesday that she's hopeful that the state can get through the final two months of fiscal 2020 without tapping those reserves or making cuts to spending. By "making some changes and using Medicaid funds," the former Ways and Means chairwoman said, state budget officials may be able to wait until fiscal 2021 to start using the reserve money.
Local aid levels unknown
This is a time of year when local government officials usually have a good understanding of expected state aid and are working to finalize local budgets, which pay for schools, police and firefighting. A special new law gives municipalities budgeting flexibility, but local aid levels remain a big unknown.
The federal government has steered substantial new funding to state and local governments in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, and there's a push in Congress for additional aid to states hit hard by the pandemic and struggling with cratering tax bases.
Without significant federal relief, the state and its cities and towns may face a crushing financial blow, Geoff Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told the News Service. "There's no local official that's seen anything like this in their lifetime," he said.
Another federal stimulus bill this year is the "last best hope" to throw a lifeline to government operations in Massachusetts, said Beckwith, who noted mayors and governors from across the country are pleading for Washington to act, with the National Governors Association seeking a $500 billion package.
"We would want that to be used to protect local aid," Beckwith said, warning against budget cuts that could damage progress in public education or hinder the capabilities of first responders. "We're very hopeful that the federal government will step in." The $3.5 billion in state savings "can be a shock absorber," he said, "but the magnitude of the problem looks to be almost twice as large as the stabilization fund."
McAnneny, of the business-backed taxpayers foundation, says the CARES Act is "insufficient to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic." In her testimony earlier this month, McAnneny highlighted the role that federal funds can play by pointing the $7.4 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that the federal government delivered to Massachusetts between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013 after the Great Recession.