House plans votes by phone
Prepares for ‘formal’ session on Thursday
A MONTH AND A HALF into the coronavirus pandemic, the Massachusetts House on Monday announced plans to resume formal legislative sessions this Thursday via remote voting.
“What we do is we create a virtual chamber,” said Rep. Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat who helped craft the rules. She is a member of DeLeo’s leadership team and the House’s coronavirus work group.
Since early March, when large gatherings were banned to slow the virus’s spread, the Legislature has passed several coronavirus-related bills, all by consensus. Lawmakers have met only in informal sessions, where a single legislator can stall the process with an objection. Certain spending bills cannot pass without a roll call vote.
Lawmakers have been working on figuring out a process for holding a formal session, where debates can be held and amendments can be voted on, without gathering in person.
The House plans to take up a bill Thursday that would let Treasurer Deborah Goldberg borrow money to maintain the state’s cash flow in light of the decision to delay the state’s income tax filing deadline. A second formal session could be held Friday, if needed.
The House will post the text of any bill being considered on its website by noon the day before the bill is being taken up, so that members and the public have time to review the legislation. All formal sessions will be livestreamed to the public on the Legislature’s website.
Under the proposed rules, House members would be able to participate in a formal session remotely – including voting, introducing amendments, and speaking during debate. A small number of lawmakers would be in the chamber – the speaker, minority leader, the committee chairs who are responsible for the bill, and monitors who are tasked with gathering votes and requests from individual members. Only essential staff will be allowed in, and participants will be required to remain six feet apart from each other to comply with public health guidelines for physical distancing. Participants will be wearing masks.
Hogan and Rep. William Driscoll, a Milton Democrat who also sits on the House’s coronavirus response working group, said the chamber session will be broadcast via Microsoft TEAMS, and members will be able to call in via conference call lines. To cast actual votes, members will call floor leaders, who in turn will pass along the results to the House clerk.
Hogan said lawmakers considered using videoconferencing software like Zoom, but they were worried about cybersecurity and also about whether all members would have the technology and proficiency to use videoconferencing. “Even if one person were left out by us creating video conferencing that was difficult for one or two people, that’s 40,000 people, because that’s who they represent,” Hogan said.
Driscoll said the biggest difference will be some slowdowns in the process. Any member wishing to speak will have to get on a list in advance, and if someone wishes to respond to something said on the floor, they will also have to get on the list. Roll calls will have to remain open for a longer period of time to make sure everyone has time to vote. “Patience is going to be one of the key virtues here,” Driscoll said.The House typically debates its version of the state budget in April, although this year’s budget release has been postponed due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. While it is not spelled out in the rules, Driscoll said the schedule of considering the state budget could be modified based on practical considerations. Typically, the House debates the budget over the course of a week, with several very late nights. Driscoll said lawmakers may consider having shorter sessions over more days.
The Senate still has not released plans to resume its formal sessions. “As I have said before, my top priority is maintaining the health and safety of our Senators, employees, and the public,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement. “With that in mind, we are in the process of finalizing our own plan to meet in a formal session in the near future to allow for a vote on a borrowing bill.”