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Mass. House moves $4 billion budget toward governor in the dark of night and passed hours later in nearly empty chamber

Mass. House moves $4 billion budget toward governor in the dark of night and passed hours later in nearly empty chamber

The final version of a bill spending billions in federal aid was revealed late Wednesday, long after dark. By Thursday morning, the $4 billion package appeared in a nearly empty chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where it was approved without an audible yea or nay. Four minutes later, the session was over.

The decisions ushered the lengthy-sought proposal to the Senate and brought it closer to the governor's desk, but with no formal remarks, just six of 159 representatives on hand, and the public still physically locked out of the building.

The huge expenditure promises hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from housing to workforce training to Massachusetts' health care system, as well as the potential of transformational change for businesses and communities bowed by the COVID-19 epidemic, lawmakers say.

However, for a plan with large implications, such rapid movement, like on Thursday's, was designed by design.

After missing a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal on the bill and entering a seven-week recess on Nov. 17, Senate and House leaders spent two weeks unknotting different versions of the package behind closed doors, all while and fretting about the need to quickly reach a compromise.

After they revealed they did, the bill itself didn't formalize until after legislators needed the day to smooth out its language. The bill officially made it to the House clerks office at 7:56 p.m. on Wednesday, four minutes before a deadline for so-called conference committee reports to be considered the next day.

With lawmakers on vacation, their calendar includes only informal talks, where no roll calls are taken and unanimous voice votes are required, and are frequently done swiftly, for a bill to be adopted, and they are often made quickly.

As a result, the final package, which was released shortly into a 10-minute-long House session on Thursday, was empty, except for a little girl in pink overalls teetering about with a House court officer in tow. Some of the half-dozen state representatives dotting the chamber were engrossed in their smartphones.

The House approved the compromise with an unrecorded voice vote and no speeches on the floor. On Friday, the Senate is expected to take up the legislation, when a few procedural votes in both chambers will finally deliver it to Baker.

While major legislation is usually moving through an informal session, legislators claimed on Thursday that the bill's debate-less passage isn't a reflection of the process that's been spent.

For months, lawmakers demanded a deliberate approach over Baker's proposal to move quickly, holding a half-dozen discussions on how to spend the $4.9 billion of once-in-a-generation federal stimulus aid on which the bill is mostly built.

Much of what the chambers passed remained in the final compromise version, lawmakers say, though it grew $180 million beyond what either chamber had originally approved. Conference committee reports are not subject to amendments.

I believe people wanted to get it done quickly and not necessarily worry about discussions on the floor about it, House Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the House's main negotiator on the bill, stated of Thursday's session. We brought everyone to the table who wanted to be at the table. It's bipartisan, it has a lot of good things in there, he stated.

Even while moving the bill without the proper legislative bodies present, state Senator Michael J. Rodrigues stated, "I don't think anything is lost."

If there's anything lost in the media, it's truly the governor's news that's going to derail it, the Westport Democrat said, referring to Baker's announcement Wednesday that he'll be next year.

Not everyone agrees.

Informal meetings are typically reserved for non-controversial housekeeping items, according to Paul Craney, a spokesman for the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, to pass a multibillion-dollar spending package.

And, with such imposing legislation, which spans 163 pages and 3,679 lines and includes hundreds of earmarks, advocates argue that giving the public the time to examine how the money is spent at each step of the legislative process is critical.

While the House and Senate broadly agreed on which areas should be considered for funding, they disagreed repeatedly on how much, prompting substantial shifts in totals within the compromise. Even in instances where they seemed to be in agreement, such as dedicating $100 million for port work geared toward the offshore wind industry, change proved unavoidable. In the final version, the fund went to $90 million.

In the end, the only version of the bill that matters is the final version, said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Of course, if there was a chance for the public to participate in the process, to see some of the debate and discussions over specific amendments, all that matters now is: What is in the final bill? What made the final cut, and what didnt?

A lot of people did. The bill promises to pump $400 million for mental and behavioral health in order to help recruit more workers to that field and allocates more than a half-billion dollars for housing, including to increase first-time homeownership in what is a.

Huge amounts of funding will also go to local and regional public health systems, the state's hospitals, and schools to improve HVAC systems. Funds were set aside for low-income essential workers' bonuses of at least $500.

The package is also littered with earmarks big and small. It made $6.5 million to assist Boston address the humanitarian crisis at intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, including $5 million for post treatment supportive housing. The city of Lynn will get $2.5 million to help improve the water quality at King's Beach, which on many summer days. Another $5 million is reserved to assist pay down debt service obligations at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

A minimum of $50,000 is required for renovations to Townsend's town common gazebo, $100,000 to nourish and restore beach dunes in Edgartown, and $125,000 to assist a 90-year-old in Wakefield.

The town administrator of Easton, who is in line to receive $2 million in a $9.2 million project to construct three plants for treating the town's water, said Connor Read, the town's executive director. "The more resources we can pull in from the state, the less we have to pass on to the citizens," said Connor Read, the town's town administrator of Easton.

In the following decades, he said, This is going to be an exceptionally expensive endeavor for all of us [in Massachusetts], he added.

The Senate finally opted to wait until Friday before taking up the compromise, in part to provide senators a full day to look at it, said Rodrigues, the chamber's top negotiator on the bill.

Rodrigues said he plans to speak on the bill on the Senate floor, but he said he intends to be brief.

Matt Stout can be reached at. Follow him on Twitter.

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