Legislature slowly restarts with rules, new committees

Senate ready to vote, but House awaiting report

THE COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the urgency of business before the state Legislature, but the 2021 legislative session has started at its usual slow pace.

Lawmakers quickly passed a climate change bill – basically a holdover from last session when they passed the bill too late to override a gubernatorial veto. Otherwise, a month after new lawmakers were sworn into office, legislative leaders are largely sorting out rules and assignments and filing bills.

Traditionally, committee assignments are made mid-February, and lawmakers appear to be on a similar track. While they have not yet made those assignments, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka this week announced three new joint committees: COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management; Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion; and Advanced Information Technology, the Internet, and Cybersecurity.

The committees highlight lawmakers’ shifting focus. They must respond to the ongoing pandemic, work that was done last year primarily through ad hoc committees. They are facing pressure to address racial equity amid a national reckoning on race precipitated by the killing of George Floyd combined with the unequal impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color. Mariano and Spilka explained the third committee by saying the pandemic, and national and world events, “has made very clear the importance of connectivity and technology in the twenty-first century.” That committee will focus on internet and telecommunications issues. (The committee that previously dealt with telecommunications also oversees energy and utility policy.)

The new committees will also give lawmakers more opportunities to earn the stipends that come with committee leadership.

On the rules front, there was going to be debate over House rules, with the progressive group Act on Mass pushing for more transparency. But Mariano decided to postpone that debate six months and re-adopt emergency rules crafted during the pandemic.

The Senate on Thursday released proposed Senate and joint rules, which senators will vote on next Thursday. The joint rules must be adopted by both bodies, so will not go into effect until the House votes.

Senators are proposing some changes. Regarding transparency, the joint and Senate rules would make committee testimony public upon request, and would post committee votes on the legislative website.  The Senate rules would also keep the text of withdrawn amendments online.

Black staffers on Beacon Hill have been asking for improved workplace conditions. The Senate rules impose mandatory implicit bias training for members and staff and mandatory anti-harassment and bystander intervention training. A provision would require committees to “make reasonable efforts to promote the diversity of expert witness panels.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

In a nod to the pandemic, the rules lay out procedures for remote hearings and broadcasting formal sessions.

Sen. Joan Lovely, who chairs the Senate’s temporary Rules Committee, told State House News Service that the Senate did not consider delaying its debate until July. Deciding on permanent rules now, she said, “It gives us stability, it gives the members opportunity to make recommendations, especially based on what we’ve just been through in the last 12 months.”