BOSTON (State House News Service) – Representatives will be back to voting in-person in the House Chamber this year, Speaker Ronald Mariano’s office said Tuesday, and internal rules up for debate Wednesday would set a permanent hybrid structure for committee hearings to be held both in-person and virtually.
A “state of emergency” declaration by the House had enabled its members to participate in sessions remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic via “temporary emergency rules,” but that state of emergency status ceased when the last General Court adjourned in early January, a Mariano spokesman said.
A House rules package offered on Tuesday, and teed up for consideration during a formal session Wednesday, would recast the emergency rules as “remote rules” and change the mechanism by which they could be activated.
Under the old rules, the House could move into remote-voting mode, with representatives able to cast votes and debate bills from their home districts, with a vote of the full membership. As proposed in the new rules package sponsored by Rep. William Galvin of Canton, chairman of the Temporary Rules Committee, the decision to flip the switch and turn on the “remote rules” would fall to the House speaker if a majority of the Rules Committee recommended that he do so.
Mariano spokesman Max Ratner told the News Service that the proposed House rules represent a “[r]eturn to in-person session for all Members,” and said there were no plans in the near term to return to remote voting.
Though representatives will stream back to Beacon Hill for formal session votes, they will not necessarily have to be in the State House for committee hearings.
The House’s rules packages include a mandatory hybrid hearing structure. No longer will hearings be in-person only as they were before the pandemic, and no longer will hearings be virtual-only as they frequently were since 2020. “Hybrid” will be the way forward, if House members agree with the packages, and if the Senate concurs with that language in the Joint Rules.
Committee chairs would be required to anchor the hearing in-person under the proposed rule, with “the option of remote participation” open for lawmakers and the public, though the chairs “shall use best efforts to prioritize the testimony of those physically present,” the proposed rule says.
The rule also directs that chairs “may, in their discretion, allow individuals participating in-person a greater amount of time to testify than those participating remotely.”
Committees would be required to livestream those hearings, and recordings would be archived on the Legislature’s website as has generally been the case during the pandemic.
Livestreaming was mostly limited to formal legislative sessions before the pandemic, but was greatly expanded during the pandemic and has opened up digital access to many more state government events and hearings.
The rule also sets parameters on written-testimony-only hearings, a practice that took off during coronavirus closures, limiting those types of testimony solicitation to either home rule petitions or to bills that have already been reported favorably out of another joint committee.
Biennial edits to the Legislature’s rules often include some shuffling of the committee structure, and the Galvin proposals would both add and dissolve committees that existed last session.
The proposed rules would cleave the former Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, establishing a new Agriculture Committee alongside a separate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. William Smitty Pignatelli, who co-chaired the ENRA Committee two terms ago, applauded the new Agriculture Committee on Tuesday and told the News Service it was “a great idea.”
“I think agriculture is such an important part of our economy, especially in the rural parts, and namely in my district — western Mass. And separating that from the big climate initiatives that we’re having to tackle I think is a wise move,” the Lenox Democrat said.
That move is part of the Joint Rules package, which the Senate would need to agree to, along with proposals to abolish the Committee on Export Development; remove “COVID-19” from the title of the Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee; and change the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee to the Veterans Affairs Committee.
The House rules package would also establish a House Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs. The Senate in recent sessions has had its own Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.
The door would open a tad wider to the possibility of late-night sessions under the proposed revisions.
Under previous practice, the House membership would need to vote on whether to continue meeting past 9 p.m., though that vote virtually always prevailed. That language is struck from the proposed new rules, while leaving in place a requirement of unanimous consent to meet past 12 midnight.
Among some smaller tweaks to the operating rules: legislative caucuses that register with the Rules Committee would have to provide a list of their members; the House speaker would have the option of filling a vacancy in the office of House chaplain, but would not be required to do so; and a reference to a “board of selectmen” in the Joint Rules would be changed to “select board,” following a prevailing trend in Massachusetts municipalities to give gender-neutral names to their governing boards.
The House is scheduled to gavel in at 11 a.m. Wednesday for its first non-ceremonial formal session in six months. House Democrats plan a private caucus at noontime, followed by an expected 1 p.m. start to formal business in the House Chamber.
At close of business Tuesday, representatives had filed 16 amendments to the House Rules package and 10 to the Joint Rules. Twenty-one of those amendments were authored by Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr.
Nearly a month into the new two-year session, Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have not assigned representatives to leadership and committee posts, which can bring lucrative stipends. Once assignments are made, legislators can begin scheduling hearings on thousands of bills that await attention.
A Mariano spokesman said Wednesday that assignments, which are ratified in caucus, are not expected Wednesday.
Galvin was not at the State House Tuesday and did not respond to an email or a request made at his office to talk about his proposal.