BOSTON (SHNS) – The Massachusetts House is planning to hold the first formal lawmaking session in nearly two months on Thursday, but don’t expect to see the nearly 160 members crammed into the historic House Chamber.
House leaders appear to have finalized a plan to hold virtual sessions that will allow members to vote remotely beginning on Thursday. Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office on Monday morning sent an email to Democratic members informing them that a teleconference caucus on Tuesday will feature discussion of temporary emergency rules that will govern the operation of the House during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
DeLeo’s office said representatives would be given a copy of the proposed rules later Monday, and would vote on them Wednesday, when an informal session is planned. Assuming the temporary rules package is adopted, DeLeo’s office said representatives “will be able to participate in the formal session remotely and are strongly encouraged to do so.”
Though the House and Senate have been able to advance some legislation with unanimous consent over the last month and a half, the bill that DeLeo wants the House to pass on Thursday can only be adopted by a roll call vote of all members.
The email from the speaker’s office Monday morning instructed members to be prepared to take up a bill (H 4593) allowing Treasurer Deb Goldberg to borrow money. The state has delayed the income tax filing deadline until July 15 and business shutdowns aimed at limiting COVID-19 spread are causing tax collections to fall.
Gov. Charlie Baker filed the bill, saying in late March that its passage would enable the state to manage deferred revenue by borrowing and then repaying the debt by June 30, 2021. The bill’s passage, Baker wrote to lawmakers, is needed to “protect the state’s budgetary and cash balances during the ongoing emergency” and “to relieve pressure on the taxpayers of Massachusetts.”
Baker and many in the Legislature at the start of 2020 had prioritized bond bills authorizing billions of dollars in spending, including bills allocating money for public transportation and information technology. Those bond bills also require roll call votes, which may only be taken during formal legislative sessions.
Senate President Karen Spilka said Friday she was still looking into remote voting, and spoke to the need to have a formal session soon to address Baker’s borrowing bill and other similar bills.
“It’s going to be a different process than how we normally hold a formal session,” she said. “We are working on it, and we will have a formal session in the near future, keeping in mind the health and safety of our members, staff and the public.”
Senate Democrats are also planning to caucus Tuesday via a conference call.
The COVID-19 pandemic and adoption of social distancing measures has thrown a wrench into one of the busiest periods for the Massachusetts Legislature. The House passed a major transportation revenue package in early March and that was expected to kick off a busy few months of work on the state budget, transportation revenue legislation, housing bills, economic development measures and more.
Massachusetts is one of seven states where the Legislature has continued to meet in some capacity during the pandemic, according to the Council of State Governments. Twenty-three states, including New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut, have temporarily halted their sessions or adjourned early due to the pandemic, CSG said.
A number of states are trying to come up with ways to allow virtual participation and voting, the National Conference of State Legislatures said, and some state legislatures have already held remote sessions.
DeLeo’s office said Monday that the Tuesday caucus will take place through conference call, with instructions for representatives to submit the phone number they plan to dial in from so House leaders can verify the identities of everyone calling in.
After the temporary rules package and remote participation protocols are detailed in caucus by DeLeo, Rep. Kate Hogan, who had been among a handful of House members looking into remote voting options, Rules Committee Chairman Rep. William Galvin and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the House is expected to adopt the rules during an informal session Wednesday.
The speaker’s office said members will be sent specific instructions on how to participate remotely in Thursday’s full formal session by Wednesday.
Thursday’s formal session, the first since Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10 to deal with the highly-contagious coronavirus, is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. with roll call votes beginning at 1 p.m.
The schedule sent to House members Monday also put representatives on notice to be prepared for a possible formal session on Friday. That session would gavel in at 11 a.m. and roll call votes would start at 1 p.m.
(Katie Lannan and Michael P. Norton contributed to this report.)