The Massachusetts Legislature is still trying to figure out how to work differently. Adhering to Gov. Charlie Baker’s limit on gatherings of more than 10 people, lawmakers are limping along in informal session with a handful of members at a time, passing emergency bills that deal with myriad issues surrounding COVID-19.
It’s not the best set-up. A single lawmaker can fairly easily throw a switch, in the form of a parliamentary trick, that shuts down the day’s work. And the Legislature has some big tasks ahead of it, such as borrowing money to sustain the state’s many efforts to keep workers and businesses afloat.
Beacon Hill leaders need to find ways to safely meet, deliberate and vote electronically -- even if remotely -- and they need to do so quickly.
At the same time, lawmakers must keep in mind something they’re historically bad at doing — conducting business in public. The Legislature is exempt from the state’s Open Meeting Law, which requires pretty much every other governmental body in the state to meet and deliberate in public. Now, with even that law subject to some adjustments in light of COVID-19, you’d be forgiven a fear that the Legislature could slip further into the shadows.
Legislative leaders are at work on a plan to get the 160-member state House of Representatives and the 40-member Senate back into something resembling formal session, State House News Service reports. Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, who leads a group coming up with a solution for the House, told the News Service they’re now balancing the technology needed to support these sessions with legislative rules and the safety of members.
“Formal sessions and hearings are the foundation of what we do as legislators,” she told the News Service, “and it is critical that we get this right.” According to the News Service, Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office aims to have a plan together in two to three weeks.
One presumes the plan will involve some portion of remote meeting and voting, for hearings if not full formal sessions. And why shouldn’t it? To the extent it can, the Legislature should adopt the tech that tethers so many of our other companies and offices together despite the constraints of social distancing.
But lawmakers cannot lose sight of those who elect them. They must take care to ensure the public has access, at least to sessions that otherwise would have been open if not everything on Beacon Hill’s agenda.