Legislative Update

Two weeks ago, we offered in this space a round-up of legislative action during the current state of emergency, with a focus on a small number of items that the BBA is closely following. With the Senate and the House currently meeting only in informal sessions and only two or three days a week each, there’s a narrow pipeline for legislation to pass through in order to achieve passage in both chambers and be sent to the Governor. Any measure that comes up in informal session must win unanimous consent, meaning that, practically speaking, all significant bills must be worked out ahead of time.

Deadlines are being extended as the Legislature is almost exclusively working on pandemic-related issues at the moment:

  • Committees that previously asked for extensions from a February deadline, in order to further consider bills still before them, are now seeking extensions to those extensions.
  • The budget process has been blown up. Ordinarily, this would be the week that the House Ways & Means Committee releases its budget proposal, for debate on the floor later this month. Instead, we are back to square one, as the Legislature and Governor (whose own budget plan, sent to lawmakers in January, has been scrapped) must first agree on a new revenue estimate for the coming Fiscal Year 2021, which will be revised dramatically downward to reflect the shutdown of the state’s economy. There is no new timeline for next year’s budget, which is technically due by July 1.
  • The deadline for formal sessions of the Legislature for 2019-2020 seems likely to be extended past July 31.

We have been most closely following these issues, all of which are currently before our new Crisis Response Working Group:

  • Legislation to allow non-profit corporations to hold their annual meetings remotely, even if not otherwise authorized, was adopted last week as part of a larger bill designed to help municipalities. It can be found in Section 16 of Chapter 53 of the Acts of 2020, signed into law on Friday and taking immediate effect. The special law expires 60 days after the end of Governor’s current COVID-19 executive order, and it also covers proxy voting, notice and cancelation of meetings, and service by directors and board members. You can read a detailed summary of these provisions by Brad Bedingfield (Hemenway & Barnes), who serves as co-chair of the Public Policy Sub-Committee of our Tax-Exempt Organizations Section.
  • As of this writing on Thursday, the Senate and the House continue to go back and forth trading versions of a bill designed to protect tenants from eviction and homeowners from foreclosure during this emergency. There remain some differences between the bill that the House adopted last week and the Senate voted to send back just this afternoon. Nevertheless, there appears to be agreement both that this is an urgent issue (April 1 rent deadlines having now come and gone) and that even after this bill is enacted, legislators will need to return to the issue to take up additional concerns that are likely to go unaddressed in this first round.
  • Practitioners in the trusts-and-estates and real-estate fields are pursuing legislation to authorize notaries public who are attorneys (or paralegals under the supervision of an attorney) to conduct business by synchronous video-link with signatories and witnesses. This is a matter of some urgency in a variety of practice areas, and while a bill has been filed to address the problem, it negotiations over it are on-going in the Legislature.
  • There is criminal-justice legislation that’s been filed aiming to reduce the population of incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts, at least temporarily, since prisons and jails make social distancing nearly impossible and can otherwise exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, once it gets behind the walls. However, it has thus far gathered little observable momentum on the legislative side. Instead, the real action appears to be in the court. (See a companion Issue Spot post this week for more about a recent SJC decision that should allow at least some pre-trial detainees to be released from, or avoid altogether, incarceration.)

We’ll continue to monitor and update you on these bills, but in the meantime, please let us know if you are aware of any other issues that have arisen in your field, or affecting the practice of law or access to justice generally!  You can always e-mail me at mavitzur@bostonbar.org. Thanks in advance for your input.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association