Lawmakers want to live-stream more Senate sessions  

State House News Service photoState Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publication to correct Senate President Karen Spilka's title. 

BOSTON — Republican lawmakers want to shed some light on the inner-workings of the Democratic controlled state Senate by broadcasting all of its meetings.

The Senate Rules Committee is studying a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and five other GOP lawmakers to live-stream so-called "informal" sessions. The meetings, held in Senate chambers, are usually overseen by a handful of lawmakers but have at times been used to move major pieces of legislation, in some cases with little or no debate.

Currently, the Senate only live-streams formal sessions on the Legislature's website when the chamber is debating passage of the budget or voting on complicated bills.

"If we're able to broadcast formal sessions, we ought to do the same with informal sessions," said Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. "We meet in informal sessions twice a week, far more than formal sessions, and folks ought to be able to see the complete picture if they want to know what's happening at the Statehouse. This is about transparency."

While a lot of what happens in informal sessions is mundane — such as resolutions recognizing holidays and voice votes establishing sick banks for state employees — Tarr says the Legislature has pushed major proposals through during the meetings, where debate is not allowed and objections from a single lawmaker can stop any bill in its tracks.

Most recently, lawmakers passed a proposal to tax and regulate short-term rentals and banned flame retardant materials during informal sessions held in late December.

More than two years ago, a six-month extension of the voter-approved recreational marijuana law was approved by a small group of lawmakers meeting in informal session.

"If you look at the volume of legislation that passes, a significant amount of it is passed in informal sessions," Tarr said.

Senate leaders have agreed to look into the idea. A report is due by the end of the year, Tarr said.

"We certainly have to look at the costs," he said. "But we already have the equipment, so it's really an operational cost because we don't need to create new infrastructure."

The Senate, which just completed a $22 million renovation of its late-1800s chamber, now has state-of-the-art cameras and equipment giving it greater ability to stream its meetings on the internet.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said she supports live-streaming informal sessions but wants to know "how much it will cost, who will be in charge of implementation, and what additional resources are needed, if any."

"We are constantly evaluating new ways to increase transparency in the Senate, particularly in light of new technologies," she said. "At the same time, we must ensure that we fully explore the ramifications of the actions we propose to take."

To be sure, the more conservative House of Representatives — which also only broadcasts formal sessions — isn't considering a move to live-stream its informal sessions.

Good government groups support live-streaming all legislative deliberations, saying it provides a window for the public to observe the workings of state government.

"Frankly I would love to see anything that opens up more of these meetings to greater public viewing and accessibility," said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. "Having the public understand the legislative process to the fullest extent possible is good for democracy."

Much of the Legislature's work on major bills and the budget is done behind closed doors in committee meetings that generally aren't open to the press or public.

And both chambers continue to exempt themselves from the state’s open records and meetings laws, despite a major push from open government groups to change that policy.

At least 30 states and Washington, D.C., broadcast legislative proceedings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts is not one of them.

In New Hampshire, the part-time Legislature live-streams limited formal sessions and only provides audio of committee hearings, according to the conference.

Meetings of Congress, as well as U.S. Senate and House committee hearings, are broadcast on C-SPAN and other networks.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.