Facing deadlines, lawmakers see time as on their side

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 20, 2014……..While deadlines are strict in some workplace and academic environments, they appear be a bit more fluid in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Members of the House and Senate joint committees since January 2013 have been reviewing thousands of bills filed for consideration during the two-year session, and on Wednesday faced a biennial deadline to make decisions on whether or not to recommend bills or whether to send them to dead-end studies.

The general idea is to give bill supporters an official response and enable them to devise a strategy for trying to move their proposals through the House and Senate, barring an “adverse report” or a study recommendation, which are effectively the end of the line for legislation.

But for some committees, more than a year of review has not been enough time to make a choice. So as spring arrives, lawmakers are on cue being presented with a series of committee requests for more time.

The House on Thursday voted to extend the reporting deadline for the Judiciary Committee until June 30 on nearly 800 bills pending before the panel. The House also quickly rubber-stamped the Labor and Workforce Development Committee’s request to extend its reporting deadline until July 31, the last date for formal sessions, under legislative rules, before a new Legislature is sworn in for 2015-2016.

The Senate adjourned without taking up those extension requests, which prevented the Labor Committee from taking up a minimum wage increase and unemployment insurance reform bill drafted by House leaders. The House plan hadn’t surfaced by Wednesday so the wage and reform bills got adverse reports, leaving House leaders in the position of devising new strategies to get those bills to the floor for debate.

Some committees have opted for shorter extensions. Proponents of a bill to lift certain caps on charter schools were encouraged this week that the Education Committee authorized only a one-week extension, raising the possibility that stakeholders by next Wednesday will find common ground on the proposal.

The Judiciary Committee is operating without a House chairman since Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty resigned to join Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration. Dartmouth Democrat Rep. Christopher Markey is vice-chairman of the committee, which traditionally receives more bills than other committees.

Extended deadlines are shaping up on some major topics.

The panel weighing gun bills this week agreed to a new deadline, May 15, to make decisions.

The Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security recommended extensions for dozens of bills relating to firearms. House Chairman Harold Naughton, who has held numerous hearings on gun legislation, had hoped to have a bill ready by early September 2013, but that plan was delayed as the committee awaited the report of a task force convened by Speaker Robert DeLeo.

In January 2013, after school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, supporters of bills to address gun violence gathered and called for changes in state and federal laws. While a proposal could still gain momentum on Beacon Hill in the months leading up to the July 31 end of formal sessions, there’s been little evidence to date that legislative leaders are building consensus on the issue.

Parents of teen drivers and public safety officials want police to be able to pull over motorists for not wearing seat belts, but they will also have to wait a little longer to learn whether they can get their proposal out of committee. The Public Safety Committee reviewing the proposal to stiffen the state’s seat belt law asked for permission to have until May 15 to consider the bill.

Under current law, police cannot pull someone over for not wearing a seat belt, but they can ticket them if they are stopped for another reason. Currently 33 states have primary enforcement seat belt laws, including Connecticut. Since 2000, 18 states have switched from secondary to primary enforcement laws.

Proposals to make seat belt usage a primary offense have bumped up against concerns about potential for racial profiling. The latest version of the bill (S 1115) includes provisions that ban police officers from searching or inspecting a motor vehicle, the driver, or a passenger based solely on a seat belt violation.

Sen. James Timilty (D-Walpole), co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said last fall he has changed his mind about the bill and planned to vote in favor of making it a primary driving offense.

The Judiciary Committee did not report out any bills just ahead of a Wednesday bill-reporting deadline, instead filing extensions for all the bills in committee.

Among the issues pending before the committee are bills setting new sentences for juvenile murderers – which some have said is a necessity because the Supreme Judicial Court ruled life without parole is an unconstitutional sentence for people who committed first degree murder as a juvenile. The committee also has bills changing laws around surveillance, affecting the statute of limitation for child sexual abuse, and dealing with restraining orders among others.

“It appears the season of extension is upon us,” Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) said Thursday as the Senate began entertaining committee requests for more time.

Education Committee Co-chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said her panel’s extension order applied to 67 bills, including proposals dealing with special education and school safety. She said the committee was working within “rigorous internal deadlines” on the bills being extended.

There are 238 bills that were filed timely and have not yet had a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, according to Sen. William Brownsberger’s office. The Senate chairman of Judiciary, who took over after Katherine Clark took a seat in Congress in December, Brownsberger said he is working with Markey on working through the bills.

Brownsberger said the change in leadership caused the delay. He said the committee will schedule hearings for the bills as soon as the extension is approved and “complete the hearing process.”

He said, “It’s got a large load and you had two vacancies.”

Brownsberger said the extension order pushed off the reporting date for 790 bills, including the 238 that have yet to have a hearing.

“I intend to devote a lot of time to this,” Brownsberger said.

Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), a former co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel cannot act on bills without a House chairman. “There’s no chair on the House side so they haven’t moved any bills,” said Creem, who noted extensions were a practice of the committee under her watch as well.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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