BOSTON — As statehouses begin to re-open, Massachusetts is becoming an outlier with government that remains closed to the public and a Legislature that continues to conduct much of its official business remotely.
Next week, Gov. Charlie Baker's state of emergency due to COVID-19 ends, along with many remaining pandemic-related restrictions on schools, businesses and local governments.
Despite that, there appear to be no plans to reopen the Statehouse or other government buildings that have been closed for more than a year.
Beacon Hill watchdogs are beginning to criticize legislative leaders' reluctance.
"It's time for them to come back to work," said David Tuerck, president of the Beacon Hill Institute, a Boston-based public policy group. "If you can walk into a bar without a mask and order a drink, you would think it would be safe for lawmakers to come back and do their jobs."
On Thursday, when lawmakers approved a plan to put a millionaires' tax referendum on the 2022 ballot, a majority cast votes remotely.
And deliberations on the $47 billion state budget are being conducted largely in remote meetings that are closed to the public.
"They shouldn't be moving major items like that unless they have the Legislature sitting there in chambers open to debate," Tuerck said.
Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative pro-business group, said the reluctance of legislative leaders to reopen the building shows a lack of transparency and accountability.
"It’s pretty clear they are delaying the reopening of the Statehouse because these politicians can continue to act in opaque ways and pass controversial legislation behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny,” Craney said. "This is a shame because that’s not how democracy is supposed to work."
The criticisms come as legislatures in some neighboring states start returning to in-person meetings to vote on budgets and conduct other official business.
The 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives has been meeting in person since last fall, after moving its meetings to a sprawling sports complex.
In Maine, House and Senate lawmakers returned to the statehouse in Augusta last week to resume in-person sessions with a packed legislative agenda.
Massachusetts' 200-member Legislature has been using a "hybrid" system of remote and in-person meetings that limits the number of lawmakers in chambers at any given time.
Many employees are still working remotely, and the Legislature has been holding meetings virtually with only a skeleton crew in the House and Senate chambers.
Committee hearings, which are normally conducted in person, have been remote for the past year.
State leaders haven't released a timeline for reopening the building or resuming in-person sessions.
The 230-year-old Statehouse is also a tourist stop along Boston's Freedom Trail. Its marbled halls are festooned with statues, paintings, historical artifacts and other museum-like attractions that draw thousands of people in the tourism season.
Baker, whose March 10, 2020, emergency orders authorized closing the state capitol and government offices, hasn't said when he will bring back state employees, many of whom are still working remotely.
Baker has hinted that his administration may look at a hybrid system when those offices eventually reopen, with some workers continuing to operate remotely.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.