Senate seeks a freer hand in dealing with House

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 12, 2015…..The Senate moved on Thursday to wrest a measure of control over the legislative agenda from House lawmakers, passing a new rule that would make it easier for senators to move legislation from committees to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

The new rule proposal put forward by Sen. Mark Montigny was part of a larger rules package governing interactions between the House and Senate for the next two years. It would allow a majority of Senate members on a joint committee to advance Senate bills out of committee without a majority of House support, and vice-versa.

The amendment passed the Senate unanimously 37-0, but it was not included in the House joint rules package passed two weeks ago and still must be accepted by that branch to take effect.

Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat and assistant majority leader, said many senators have grown frustrated watching as House leaders, who control the joint committees by virtue of having more members on each committee, stall or kill bills filed by senators.

“We’re not saying we want to be in charge of the building. We’re not saying we want to be king for life, or that we want to be grand poobah, we just want to be treated equally,” Montigny said.

While it remains unclear whether House Speaker Robert DeLeo would be amenable to the change, Montigny floated an alternative that he referred to as the “nuclear option” and which appeared to be designed as leverage in negotiations with the House.

Montigny said the House and Senate could continue to hold joint public hearings on legislation for the sake of efficiency, but the Senate could act unilaterally to establish 27 Senate committees that mirror the joint committee structure and have all Senate bills referred by the clerk to those panels.

Suggesting it wouldn’t even be that “aggressive,” Montigny said 46 other states have individual House and Senate committees.

“For me it isn’t in any way threatening. It’s more of just a promise that we want to do more work. We want a different spirit here, far more active, far more transparent,” Montigny told the News Service after the debate. “If we can run a more efficient Senate and therefore help run a more efficient building, even if it’s prospective and we don’t get any movement over the next months, my recommendation will be absolutely a Senate rule. Boom. Done. And I’d be very comfortable recommending that to the body.”

Rep. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat who led the rules debate in the House, did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for DeLeo said the speaker had no comment on the proposed change.

Montigny said one of his only hesitations in recommending the “nuclear option” is that it may require the Senate to hire additional staff for the new committees at a time when the state is grappling with budget shortfalls and Gov. Charlie Baker has ordered a hiring freeze in the executive branch.

In order to get around the House’s control over the timing of bills advancing from committee to a vote, the Senate would retain the rule that allows its Ways and Means Committee to originate legislation, but Montigny said the House has not always recognized bills that are created by this method.

“If the House and Senate are intended to be co-equal branches, then the rules should reflect that,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge said.

The joint rules package (S 7) would also require all committee votes be posted online within 48 hours, direct the House and Senate to assign late-filed bills to committee within 60 days, and push up the deadline for committees to report on bills in the second year of two-year sessions from mid-March to mid-January.

Conference committees – six-member panels of three senators and three state representatives who negotiate differing bills between the branches – would be required to issue reports by July 28 in an attempt to avoid a logjam at the July 31 end of a session when lawmakers sometimes have little time to review final bills before voting.

Under the proposed rules, conference reports would also have to be filed by 5 p.m. the night before they are to be considered on the floor instead of 8 p.m. to give members additional time for review.

In another change, the Senate has proposed to allow appropriation bills and gubernatorial vetoes to carry over from one calendar year to the next in a two-year session, as all other legislation does. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who supported the change, said it would avoid situations when a governor might return a spending bill or issue a veto while the Legislature is in recess and can’t act.

The Senate also adopted a Sen. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham) amendment that would require lawmakers to be given at least four hours to vote on a bill being polled electronically out of a committee to allow time for review.

Republicans, as they tried in the House, attempted unsuccessfully to push an amendment that would have required the Legislature to adopt by March 15 of every year a local aid resolution informing cities and towns of the lowest level of local aid they could expect in the upcoming budget.

Tarr argued that cities and towns need the information to begin planning their own budgets, but Democratic leaders said it could prove too risky in uncertain financial climates.

“I understand all the good intentions. I’ve also gotten pressure like all of you here from our municipalities to try to do a local aid resolution, but it would really tie our hands, especially March 15 is really early in the year,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka.
The local aid amendment failed 7-29, with Democrat Sen. Michael Moore, of Millbury, joining with Republicans in support.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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