Columnist Sen. Jo Comerford with Dear Jo: Roaring into the fall

Published: 9/3/2020 4:31:52 PM

Dear Jo: We’ve heard the Legislature voted to extend formal sessions through the end of this year. What does that mean? What will happen in the fall?
               —
Julie and Adam Tanguay, Amherst

DEAR JULIE AND ADAM, thank you for these important questions. The Massachusetts Legislature has two-year sessions and in the second year, our joint rules call for no “formal” sessions past July 31. Formal sessions are where we have debates and roll call votes, which are essential instruments of public accountability. (That’s not the case for “informal” sessions, which by law must be held every 72 hours.)

I advocated in the Senate for extending formal sessions so that the Legislature could tackle major issues left unresolved at the end of July and am very glad that the House and Senate amended our rules to allow formal sessions to continue through 2020.

Here’s what you can expect:

Conference reports: When the House and Senate pass two different versions of the same bill, the differences are sometimes reconciled in what’s called a conference committee — bipartisan groups with three legislators from each chamber. The Legislature has five conference committees currently at work on climate, health care and police training and accountability legislation, as well as on transportation and economic development bond bills.

But there are other bills I hope we finish that haven’t been sent to conference, and instead are being reconciled more informally. This includes legislation to strengthen the state’s accountability to those involved with the Department of Children and Families, which includes the text of a bill I introduced around foster parents. I wrote about this in a July wrap up here.

My team and I are engaging with all of these conference committees and advocating for our constituents so that your priorities and values are represented in the negotiations. When conference bills return to each chamber only a Yes or No vote is allowed. So our work is now — intensive and pressing — to push for our amendments, retain what we believe is good in each bill, and work to remove the bad stuff.

Continued focus on COVID-related legislation: Last spring, the Senate voted on nearly 20 COVID-related bills. We’re still grappling with the intensity of this work as the virus and related economic havoc continue their stranglehold on our cities and towns, on our workforce and on our families. Work on these issues simmered in August, but will come to a boil as we roar into the fall.

For me, one of the must-pass, COVID-related bills is the Work and Family Mobility Act which will allow all qualified state residents to apply for a standard Massachusetts driver’s license, regardless of immigrant status. This bill is an immigrant rights, workforce development and public health necessity. I talked about my support for it during the Economic Development Bond Bill debate. You can listen here.

 

A fiscal 2021 budget: The Legislature passed a three-month interim budget which ends in October. I supported this stopgap budget as a mechanism to keep the state running. If we were forced to have passed a full budget by July 1 (the start of the state’s fiscal year), we would have faced massive cuts.

This delay mostly gives us a chance to see how far the U.S. Congress will go toward addressing the current crisis. Major cuts now are the antithesis of what’s needed. Especially in moments like these, public funding is a catalyst for stimulating our economy, protecting workers and shoring up nonprofits and businesses, lest we spiral into a destructive austerity tail spin. That’s why I’m also advocating for a fall conversation about raising state revenue fairly — to help fill the gaps we already know will exist even if the federal government comes through.

But there’s more: Our team remains committed to constituent cases. We’re moving on issues like better COVID testing, safe and equitable school reopenings, funding for higher education, helping to secure state grants for municipalities and urging the commonwealth to seize an opportunity to invest in public rail. We’re drilling down on the legislation we filed that didn’t yet advance, to see if we can strengthen it for refiling (if the voters send us back to work for a second term).

And then there’s work on a new round of legislation. We’re hungry to file bills that move the needle on issues our people care about. This is a moment for transformation. And there’s no time for half measures.

This is all happening within the context of the highest stakes national election in many of our lifetimes. Every single ballot must count. Here’s a piece I wrote about the expanded voting rights/vote-by-mail legislation passed earlier in the summer with heartfelt thanks to the city/town clerks, poll workers, and postal workers who are key to unlocking the power of individual votes.

I feel the ground rumbling as people in our district organize to grab hold of our government at every level and demand that it work in their best interest. As people raise their voices to decry the long-standing injustices in our midst, exposed and made more wrenching during the pandemic. And especially as young people lead us more boldly and fearlessly into the 21st century. This is democracy at its most beautiful, made possible by all of you.

Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.



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