MASS STATE HOUSE RULES FOR REMOTE SESSIONS

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By Bob Katzen

HOUSE RULES FOR REMOTE SESSIONS – The plan was for the House to vote last Wednesday on a temporary emergency set of House rules that would allow members to “attend” formal sessions remotely and to debate and vote from home by use of their telephones. Formal sessions are where debate and roll call votes are held in the House. The House has not held a formal session for two months owing to the sheltering at home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The last formal session was on March 5.

The new rules would have given the House the authority to eventually give final approval on a required roll call vote to Gov Baker’s bill that would allow the state to borrow money to tide it over during the revenue shortfall created by the pandemic which has led to a severe reduction in tax revenue for the state. A roll call is not required to give initial approval to the bill but would be required to enact the bill at its final stage.

Rep. Jones says that under current rules, the House could have given initial approval to the borrowing bill by unanimous consent during last Wednesday or Thursday’s informal session, sent it over to the Senate for action and have additional time to negotiate the emergency rules. He noted that the process allowing for remote voting would only need to be agreed to and in place by the final approval (enactment) stage.

The emergency rules as drafted would allow for the continuation of remote formal sessions thereby allowing for roll calls on other bills until the emergency is lifted, but not later than the end of the 2020 session in early January.

But it didn’t quite go according to plan. The rules proposed by House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) were controversial and some of them were opposed by Republicans as well as some Democrats. The most controversial rule would have required a roll call vote when 25 percent (40 members) request it. That would have replaced the current rules requiring only 10 percent (16 members.) The new rule was ditched amidst protests that this would be a step back from transparency. It is often the GOP that asks for roll call votes on controversial issues. Under current rules, the 31 Republican members is more than twice as many needed to currently force a roll call but would be nine votes short under the new rules.

There were still other sticking points. Republicans expressed concerns regarding the new limit on how many times a member can be recognized, a 10 a.m. deadline to sign up to debate on a given day and the inability for members to know how long a recess, or break, might last. In addition, the GOP wanted to sunset the emergency rules after the governor’s borrowing bill was given final approval and spend more time on putting together a package agreeable to both sides for future sessions during the pandemic.

Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) defended the emergency rules and said they were fair to all members, including House Republicans. He acknowledged that the proposed rules of having people sign up to debate and getting only one chance to speak would be more limiting than during normal times but added that “these are uncharted waters and unprecedented times.”

Negotiations continued throughout the week but ultimately an agreement could not be reached and at both sessions, Jones doubted the presence of a quorum (81 members) necessary for the House to continue business. Since only a handful of legislators were present, under House rules, the lack of a quorum means the House was forced to adjourn.

That’s when the gloves came off and dueling press releases between Jones and DeLeo began.

“Today, Republicans blocked a set of emergency procedures aimed at allowing the House to hold formal sessions while keeping members, staff and the public safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” DeLeo said in a statement. He noted that Gov. Baker has told leaders of both parties that passage of the borrowing bill is time sensitive and critical to the state’s finances.

“The comments from the speaker are disappointing and, more importantly, untruthful,” responded Jones in a press release. “Instead of using this crisis to work more collaboratively with all members, the focus of the emergency rules seems to be about placing more power into the hands of the speaker’s office.”

“This is an unparalleled example of both recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility; a partisan political move meant to enhance their power at the expense of the taxpayer and the safety of the public,” said DeLeo.

“I am shocked and disappointed at the speaker’s overreaction to what transpired at today’s session, and want to vigorously refute any suggestion that the Republican caucus is in any way jeopardizing the state’s finances or putting people’s health and safety at risk,” said Jones. “The safety of staff and members is of paramount importance to me. I worked directly with members of the speaker’s leadership team and we were very close to reaching an agreement to allow for remote voting. I at no time took action that should have derailed that progress.”

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