Keep Session Focused

The Boston Globe
August 15, 2006

Legislative Leaders are considering an unusual formal session next month because they dropped the ball two weeks ago, failing to pass a bond authorization bill that is needed before January. They should not compound the error by allowing the session to stray beyond the few issues that are genuinely urgent.

Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi would do well to remember the atmosphere in 1995 when lawmakers approved rules shortening the formal sessions. They were there. The reform was passed under enormous public pressure. Two legislators were under criminal investigations. The Globe Spotlight Team had reported on legislators partying at resorts with special-interest agents. Lawmakers had given themselves a controversial pay raise. Late-night sessions, often with lame-duck legislators, regularly approved special-interest benefits that were uncovered only later.

Since 1995, the performance and reputation of the Legislature have improved as it has shown discipline by adhering to the shortened formal sessions -- which end by mid-November in odd-numbered years, and July 31 in election years. This year, the success of the House and Senate in securing passage of a landmark healthcare bill has given the lawmakers added luster.

It would be a pity to put those gains at risk by organizing a legislative free-for-all.

The exact responsibility for failing to pass the bond bill is in question, but both branches played a role. The important point now is to get it right . Even if it were passed in January, a number of construction projects and other contracts would be delayed. Perhaps most important, the healthcare reform might be seriously delayed for failure to start work on the necessary computer systems. This situation should be rectified.

Some legislators would also like to take up other matters that died with the formal sessions two weeks ago. Bills to affirm the state's commitment to early childhood education, to extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse, and to tighten the requirements for teenage drivers, for instance, all deserve passage, but they are not urgent enough to bring the Legislature back. They should wait until next year.

If the legislative leaders cannot agree on a tightly focused agenda, Governor Mitt Romney should explore the possibility of calling them into special session with a strictly limited mandate. There is disagreement at the State House, however, as to whether Romney can exercise that power when the Legislature is still in informal sessions, as it is now.

The state constitution says the Legislature should be called back into session "if the welfare of the Commonwealth shall require the same" -- and not simply to finish the work it should have done in July.


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