With 8 Hearings In One Day, How Can Massachusetts Lawmakers Do Their Jobs?

May 6, 2019

Massachusetts legislators on Beacon Hill are scheduled to vet more than 200 bills on Tuesday. 

There are eight joint committee hearings. Five are scheduled for the exact same time.

Senator Rebecca Rausch, who represents communities in Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex counties, tweeted that she "hasn't figured out how to be at three to four hearings simultaneously."

For our quick look ahead at the week in Massachusetts politics and government, Matt Murphy of the State House News Service talks about how common this is.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: It's absolutely common. Senator Rausch is a freshman lawmaker up here, trying to figure this out. So this is her first go around through this process.

But this is what happens when you have some 4,000-plus bills filed every session, going to dozens of different committees. All have to have their hearings.

In past years, they've made a concerted effort, through the rules, and just through agreements with each other, of the committee chairs. They try not to schedule committee hearings when either branch is in session, which means Tuesdays become incredibly busy days. You have people trying to be in many places at one time.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: And everything gets worked out in the end?

It does all get worked out in the end.

One of the things that typically happens — you can see some powerful testimony at some of these committee hearings, but a lot of it also gets written down, and submitted to the committee, that can be reviewed later.

That's one way that legislators can catch up, because they both sit on some of these committees, but also have bills of their own that they want to go testify for in front of other committees. So that's where the juggling act really comes in.

Governor Charlie Baker filed a supplemental spending bill last week that you described as policy-filled. While the bill would provide extra money for certain activities, it's a 17-page document with 23 outside policy sections. What are a few of those non-budgetary items the governor stuck in there?

This bill was interesting — just about $23 or $24 million in new spending to shore up some accounts, but a lot of policy requests in this bill. Some new ones, including some changes. The governor is looking to make sure that people don't double-dip when they're collecting worker's compensation, but also come around and qualify for retirement.

He also, though, renewed a number of requests that he filed back in either January or February. 

The House took up this supplemental budget in February that dropped a lot of the policy sections. And these include some interesting proposals, like making sure that farmers can grow hemp on agricultural preservation lands in Massachusetts.

He's also looking to put some holidays back into what we remember as the "grand bargain" that was struck last session, trying to make sure that some of these holidays, like Columbus Day — that time-and-a-half is phased out for these holidays, as well.

So he's both filing some new proposals, and also re-upping some ones that the legislature didn't have an appetite for the last time around.

And if the legislature continues not to have an appetite for them, he'll stick them in another?

He probably will. This is probably not the last supplemental budget that we'll see from the governor — but at least one more after this, I would think, where he could take another run at some of these policy measures, if they don't get included in other bills moving in the legislature.

Senators have scheduled the distracted driving bill for debate later this week. Critics say even though this is the third time around for this bill, it still has some issues. What are the lingering concerns?

There's a bill that's twice passed the Senate, now, in the past two sessions, and it's advanced in the House, but it's never gotten a full vote in the House.

There's some indications that the House may be ready to take it up this session. The Speaker said he looked forward to taking up a distracted driving bill. So that is giving advocates optimism.

This would ban the hand-held use of cell phones in cars. So you'd have to use the hands-free devices to make calls, or even send texts, or activate your GPS.

But there have always been concerns about racial profiling. This bill does include some compromise language to require law enforcement to submit data to the state, so that citations and motor vehicle stops can be tracked, to make sure that there are not racial disparities.

But there is a finite number of emergency situations where you would be able to handle your phone in the car, if you were driving, and there's some concern that this is not broad enough. So all this is subject to debate.

We're expecting it later this week on Thursday. But there are some rumblings that it could be delayed procedurally even further, so this is one thing we're watching.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.