End of ‘Session’ — FAQ

What is the timeline for Gubernatorial Vetos?

  • Once the legislature lays before the Governor a piece of legislation enacted by both branches, the Governor has ten days to take action. The days are counted from the day after the Governor receives the papers. So, if the legislature delivered a budget to the Governor on June 18, the Governor would have until June 28 to take action. The Governor could take action at any time on June 28.
  • The Governor has four options for a piece of legislation:
    • Sign — the bill becomes law.
    • Veto — the bill becomes law only if both branches of the legislature vote by a two-third roll call to override the veto.
    • Return with recommended amendment — the bill does not become law unless the legislature passes the bill again (with or without the Governor’s amendment). When a bill comes back the second time, the Governor cannot return it again.
    • Ignore — the bill becomes law if the legislature if the biennial session is not over, but simply expires if the annual session in which the bill was voted is over.

In general, the Governor must act on a bill as a whole. However, there are special rules for bills involving the appropriation of money: The Governor can disapprove or reduce any individual appropriation. Often appropriation bills include sections that address policy issues and do not appropriate money — so-called ‘outside sections’. The rules have been interpreted to allow the Governor to treat outside sections as individual bills — in other words, the Governor may not accept only a part of an outside section, but the Governor can veto or return any outside section without vetoing or returning the whole bill.

Note that the option of returning a bill for amendment allows the Governor a second ten day period to consider the bill. If a legislature wants to be sure it can override a Governor’s veto without extraordinary procedures, it needs to consider the full 20 day timeline.

Constitutional basis of veto power

The veto power appears in the original constitution of the Commonwealth:

No bill or resolve of the senate or house of representatives shall become a law, and have force as such, until it shall have been laid before the governor for his revisal; and if he, upon such revision, approve thereof, he shall signify his approbation by signing the same. But if he have any objection to the passing of such bill or resolve, he shall return the same, together with his objections thereto, in writing, to the senate or house of representatives, in whichsoever the same shall have originated; who shall enter the objections sent down by the governor, at large, on their records, and proceed to reconsider the said bill or resolve. But if after such reconsideration, two thirds of the said senate or house of representatives, shall, notwithstanding the said objections, agree to pass the same, it shall, together with the objections, be sent to the other branch of the legislature, where it shall also be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of the members present, shall have the force of a law: but in all such cases, the votes of both houses shall be determined by yeas and nays; and the names of the persons voting for, or against, the said bill or resolve, shall be entered upon the public records of the commonwealth.

Massachusetts Constitution, Part 2, Chapter 1, Section 1, Article 2

Amendment 90 to the constitution, adopted in 1968, is the most recent update of these procedures:

Section 1. Article II of section I of Chapter I of Part the Second of the constitution is hereby amended by striking out the second paragraph and inserting in place thereof the following paragraph:-

And in order to prevent unnecessary delays, if any bill or resolve shall not be returned by the governor within ten days after it shall have been presented, the same shall have the force of a law.

Section 2. Article I of the Articles of Amendment to the Constitution is hereby annulled and the following is adopted in place thereof:–

Article I. If any bill or resolve shall be objected to, and not approved by the governor, and if the general court shall adjourn within ten days after the same shall have been laid before the governor for his approbation, and thereby prevent his returning it with his objections, as provided by the constitution, such bill or resolve shall not become a law, nor have force as such.

Section 3. Article LVI of the Articles of the Articles of Amendments to the Constitution is hereby annulled and the following is adopted in place thereof:–

Article LVI The governor, within ten days after any bill or resolve shall have been laid before him, shall have the right to return it to the branch of the general court in which it originated with a recommendation that any amendment or amendments specified by him be made therein. Such bill or resolve shall thereupon be before the general court and subject to amendment and re-enactment. If such bill or resolve is re-enacted in any form it shall again be laid before the governor for his action, but he shall have no right to return the same a second time with a recommendation to amend.

Section 4. Article LXIII of the Articles of Amendment to the Constitution is hereby amended by striking out Section 5 and inserting in place thereof the following section:–

Section 5. Submission to the Governor. – The governor may disapprove or reduce items or parts of items in any bill appropriating money. So much of such bill as he approves shall upon his signing the same become law. As to each item disapproved or reduced he shall transmit to the house in which the bill originated his reason for such disapproval or reduction, and the procedure shall then be the same as in the case of a bill disapproved as a whole. In case he shall fail so to transmit his reasons for such disapproval or reduction within ten days after the bill shall have been presented to him, such items shall have the force of law unless the general court by adjournment shall prevent such transmission, in which case they shall not be law.

Massachusetts Constitution, Amendment 90

Why is July 31 an important legislative deadline?

Speaking generally, after July 31 in an even numbered year, the legislature does not take roll call votes and will only enact measures as to which there is unanimous consent. This rule can be waived only by a 2/3 vote of both branches.

A fuller understanding of the legislative cycle requires layering several rules and constitutional provisions together.

Legislative Term and Sessions

Amendment 82 to the Constitution provides that legislators shall be elected for two years and sit for two annual sessions.

. . . [S]enators and representatives shall be elected biennially . . .

. . . The terms of senators and representatives shall begin with the first Wednesday in January succeeding their election and shall extend to the first Wednesday in January in the third year following their election and until their successors are chosen and qualified. . . .

. . . The general court shall assemble every year on the first Wednesday in January.

. . .

Sessions within the Annual Sessions

The word ‘session’ is commonly used to refer to both the annual session and to the individual meetings of either branch. The branches ‘adjourn’ from session date to session date. Within the entire period of each annual session, the following symmetric provisions limit to two days the length of any adjournments of either branch. (The word ‘day’ in these rules has been understood to mean two business days and a schedule of Monday/Thursday meetings has been taken to comply with the rule.)

The senate shall have power to adjourn themselves, provided such adjournments do not exceed two days at a time.

Part 1, Chapter 1, Section II, Article VI of the Massachusetts Constitution

The house of representatives shall have power to adjourn themselves; provided such adjournment shall not exceed two days at a time.

Part 1, Chapter 1, Section III, Article VIII of the Massachusetts Constitution

The legislature has the power to take a recess for a longer period (up to 30 days) by a concurrent vote of both branches, but rarely does so:

The General Court, by concurrent vote of the two houses, may take a recess or recesses amounting to not more than thirty days.

Amendment 102 to the Massachusetts Constitution

Within a session started on a particular date, a branch can recess ‘briefly’ — usually under 30 minutes — or for a longer period to a specific time or ‘subject to the call of the chair.’ Occasionally, a branch may recess overnight.

Annual Sessions — Structure

The legislature’s Joint Rule 12B carries over the business uncompleted in the first annual session into the second annual session:

Any matter pending before the General Court at the end of the first annual session and any special session held in the same year shall carry over into the second annual session of the same General Court in the same legislative status as it was at the conclusion of the first annual session or any special session held during that year; provided, however, that any measure making or supplementing an appropriation for a fiscal year submitted to or returned to the General Court by the Governor, under Article LXIII of the Amendments to the Constitution, in the first annual session or in a special session held during that year shall cease to exist upon the termination of the first annual session. [Adopted June 12. 1995.]

The legislature’s Joint Rule 12A defines the end of formal business for each session:

All formal business of the first annual session of the General Court shall be concluded not later than the third Wednesday in November of that calendar year and all formal business of the second annual session shall be concluded not later than the last day of July of that calendar year.

The term ‘formal business’ is not specifically defined in the Joint Rules or the Senate Rules, but it is understood to mean legislative actions requiring the taking of a roll call votes. Hence, the basic rule is: no roll call votes after July 31 in the even-numbered year.

Formal and informal sessions

Business may still be done on an ‘informal’ basis after July 31 (as it can throughout the cycle). In the Senate Rules, ‘informal’ status for a session is coupled with the waiving of a printing of a calendar. In the absence of a printed calendar, there are limits on the business that can be done.

. . . The President may also declare a session informal in nature, with prior notice given. Notice of such action shall be printed in the Journal of the Senate by the Clerk of the Senate and the printing of a calendar shall be suspended with reference to an informal session under this rule. Matters considered in an informal session shall have either received a public hearing or other disposition by a committee of relevant subject matter jurisdiction.

In the case of an informal session, only reports of committees and matters not giving rise to formal motion or debate shall be considered.

Senate Rule 5A

In the absence of a printed calendar in an informal session, any single member can block action on any matter.

When the presentation of the calendar required under this rule is suspended under Rule 5A, a session shall be considered informal and no matter shall be considered if a member at said session objects to its consideration. After the conclusion of formal business as described in Joint Rule 12A, a member may object to a particular matter, provided they have placed their request in writing to the Senate Clerk prior to the start of the session.

Senate Rule 7

The legislature’s Joint Rule 33 allows suspension of a joint rule by a 2/3 vote of each branch:

Any joint rule . . . may be altered, suspended or rescinded by a concurrent vote of two-thirds of the members of each branch present and voting thereon.

Joint Rule 33

However, it it is possible that suspension of Joint Rule 12A might effectively require unanimous consent under the senate rules. Under the rules of the informal sessions that are convened after the Joint Rule 12A date, any member opposed to suspending the rule to allow a formal session could block suspension. Another approach, available without unanimous consent in a formal session before the Joint Rule 12A date is to adopt an order overriding Joint Rule 12A to specifically allow a particular formal session or sessions, perhaps for defined purposes, after the Joint Rule 12A date. There may be other solutions.

Rarely Used Rules

The rules discussed above are the rules that are routinely used and applied. Other applicable rules include the following:

  • Senate Rule 5A allows cancellation of a session ‘in case of an extreme emergency.’
  • Articles V and VI of the constitution give the Governor powers to convene, adjourn or prorogue the legislature, but by its terms the Article V refers to the ‘desire’ of the legislature and it is unclear whether the legislature or courts would consider an order of the Governor contrary to the wishes of the legislature to be valid. Prorogation is a parliamentary maneuver which would apparently have the effect of ending the pendency of any unresolved bills, but leaves open the possibility of reconvening the legislature before it is formally dissolved after elections. None of these powers or procedures have been used in recent memory.
  • Joint Rule 26A creates a procedure in case a majority of members of each branch file notices requesting a special session. This would appear to be most relevant in case of an extended recess or a prorogation. However, it could conceivably be an approach to convening a session after the Joint Rule 12A date.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.