Bay State lawmakers unlikely to finish session before Christmas

Lawmakers and vacations, that familiar Bay State combination, have been spending a lot of time together this year. While it would be unfair to suggest the senators and representatives have done little more than twiddle their thumbs during the past eight months, the pace has been conspicuously slow.

Instead of working longer hours last winter and spring, the lawmakers spent more than a few weeks doing little more than trying to look busy.

Certainly the nearly $8.9 billion fiscal 1986 state budget took time to fine-tune, as did the $211 million public education reform legislation and a few other measures of particular significance.

Still, a lot more could, and probably should, have been accomplished before the Senate and House began their summer schedule of twice-weekly sittings, the minumum required by the state constitution.

The House, before the July 19 start of its all-but-vacation, approved and sent to the Senate measures mandating the use of auto seat belts and phasing out the 7.5 percent income tax surcharge. Although the Senate continued to meet regularly for another week before beginning its informal recess, it didn't take up either of these issues. Nor is it likely to deal with anything beyond the very routine until after Sept. 9, the official back-to-work date for the 40 senators.

In its more businesslike approach, under new Speaker George Keverian, the House resumed more frequent gatherings on Aug. 19, but only for three days.

Before the representatives closed shop again they gave initial approval to key legislation revamping the state's criminal sentencing structure

While a degree independence between the Senate and House is desirable, failing to get together on timing of a legislative vacation -- formal or informal -- is carrying independence a bit too far.

There is simply no way the two branches can function efficiently without a lot of teamwork, including meeting pretty much at the same time.

Ideally the Legislature should have been able to complete its agenda by mid-summer or early fall. This used to be the case a decade ago, before the Senate and House leadership hit on the idea of what amounts to a year-long session.

Only four times in the past decade -- 1976, 1978, 1979, and 1980 -- have the annual legislative sessions finished before year's end. And there is nothing to suggest the current session will wind up before Christmas.

Before all the senators and representatives return to Beacon Hill on Sept. 9, it might be a good idea for the leaders of the chambers to sit down and work out out a schedule for coming to grips with the more important pending legislation.

If, for whatever reason, the Senate has little or no interest in taking up a proposal, it makes little sense for the House to dwell on it. Similarly, why should the Senate waste its time on something unlikely to be approved in the other branch?

So far this year, the House has managed a more even flow of items for floor action than the Senate. Still languishing on various legislative back-burners however, are most of what Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has been hoping for.

For example, the state administration had expected passage of criminal sentencing reform long before now. But the legislation still has not made it through the House for Senate consideration.

Other Dukakis-sponsored or -favored proposals to be dealt with in the coming weeks involve a $60 million proposal for the state to assume financial responsibility for county jails, $1.9 billion in transportation improvements across the Commonwealth, a $1 billion overhaul of the workers compensation program, and a blueprint for wiping out the $11 billion deficit in public-employee pension reserves.

Unless the legislative pace quickens considerably it is questionable how many of these will be voted on, even in substantially modified versions.

Particularly doubtful is the future of the governor's MassBank proposal, which envisions a new, independent funding mechanism for reconstruction of roads, bridges, and water systems.

Certainly these are among the year's more complex and controversial matters. They can hardly be hustled through, as is the all-too-familiar practice in the waning weeks of lawmaking sessions.

What is needed is a lot less marking time, waiting for the next long weekend, and greater determination by the House and Senate to get on with the people's business and then go home until next January.

If all but a handful of other state Legislatures can handle their annual workload in less than seven months, why can't Massachusetts?

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