Protest worries prompt closure of Senate viewing gallery  

 Sam Doran/State House News ServiceSenate court officer Joseph O'Donnell guarded a closed-off public gallery on Tuesday, the first day of Senate budget debate, and redirected a State House visitor to another gallery on the opposite side of the chamber. 

BOSTON – Before changing course mid-afternoon, the Senate opted to close one of two galleries from which the public is allowed to observe debate Tuesday due to the possibility of activists blocking access to the chamber as senators began to debate one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the session.

The Senate halved the number of citizens, lobbyists, activists and reporters allowed to watch the beginning of the debate on a roughly $43 billion budget from within the newly-renovated chamber Tuesday morning by keeping the east gallery closed when the session got underway around 10 a.m.

The staircase between the fourth floor outside the east gallery and the third-floor chamber entrance was also closed at the start of Tuesday's session, and the Senate erected rope lines that it does not typically use outside the chamber entrance.

After initially explaining the closure of the east gallery as being due to "increased activity in the State House," Senate President Karen Spilka's office confirmed Tuesday afternoon the closure was related to the potential for disruption by activists, and the subsequent shuffling of court officers to prepare for that possibility.

"This morning, the Senate made an assessment based on recent activity by activists in the State House, and took steps to ensure access to the Senate Chamber. This resulted in increasing the number of staff on the third floor," Spilka Communications Director Sarah Blodgett said.

"Once it was clear that this additional staffing was not needed to ensure unencumbered access in and out of the Senate Chamber, normal staffing was restored and the East gallery was reopened."

To respond to the possibility of a disruptive demonstration, the Senate stationed two court officers outside the chamber on the third floor rather than the usual one. And because the staircase was also off-limits, the Senate had a court officer sit at the top of the stairs, just outside the closed east gallery, to keep people off the stairs.

The east gallery was reopened at about 3 p.m. when the Senate dropped down to one court officer outside the chamber entrance and took down the rope line blocking access to the stairs.

Though Spilka's office did not specify which activists it feared might attempt to block entry to the Senate Chamber, a group of college students has been holding sit-ins at the State House each day since last Thursday to call for action to address the high costs of college.

On Sunday, the group said it would return to the State House on Monday to "escalate our pressure in order to demand what is right."

Some of the students sat in Spilka's office on Monday, and on Monday night the group wrote in a press release that "the Senate budget debate presents an optimal opportunity to escalate and have our message heard."

When approached by a News Service reporter Tuesday afternoon, one group of the students would not confirm or deny a plan to disrupt the Senate's session.

Other advocacy groups, including those lobbying for increased funding for nursing homes, were also in the building Tuesday.

"Anyone commenting on the shut out of the public from the east side of the Senate gallery?" Janet Domenitz, the executive director of consumer protection group MASSPIRG and a State House regular, tweeted to a News Service reporter who noted that senators were threading hockey references into their debate. "As a (VERY amateur) hockey player myself, I'm calling a penalty."

The two galleries from where the public is allowed to view Senate sessions were recently upgraded as part of $22.6 million renovation of the Senate chamber paid by taxpayers.

On Tuesday morning, Spilka spokesman Antonio Caban told the News Service that the public could still watch the session online or from the one gallery that was open.

"We're not blocking the public from an opportunity to view the session," he said. "There is still a gallery available for the public to still view debate and there are various locations around the State House, including Room 428, where the public can also view the debate as well."

The Senate livestreams its formal sessions online, though the stream can sometimes lag behind the actual proceedings and be prone to glitches. For the budget debate, the Senate also has set up televisions in Room 428 for lobbyists and anyone interested to watch the livestream.

"In a world that has become increasingly virtual, the Senate chamber remains a place where we can come together and sit side by side as equals to work on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth, a place where we can look each other in the eye as we advocate for our positions – and sometimes respectfully disagree – and shake hands at the end of a long day," Spilka said in January as she welcomed guests into the newly-renovated chamber.

Michael P. Norton also contributed to this report.