No doubt gathering for a meeting in some of the smaller spaces and conference rooms of the Massachusetts Statehouse will give someone pause, even if they’re firmly on the other side of their COVID-19 vaccines. It’s not unlike the unsettled feeling that washes over workers everywhere as they’ve returned to the office for the first time in more than a year, let alone those who never had the luxury of working remotely in the first place.
But, at this point, it no longer warrants keeping the state Legislature in remote or “hybrid” meetings and the Statehouse closed to the public. It’s time for the building to reopen. It’s time for lawmakers to return.
Massachusetts is one of the few states left with a Legislature still meeting off-site, as Statehouse reporter Christian Wade chronicled last week. Technically it holds “hybrid” sessions, with some lawmakers present in the Senate or House chambers, but many more participating off-site. Committee meetings continue to take place not in person but via videoconference.
At the start of the year, the legislatures in 28 states were allowing lawmakers to “call” into sessions remotely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An even greater number were making arrangements to hold committee meetings remotely.
But with the numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths falling — and the number of people vaccinated continuing to inch higher — centers of government are reopening. In New England, Maine’s Legislature picked up in-person meetings last week. Lawmakers in New Hampshire were steadfast in meeting in person throughout the pandemic — initially inside the Whittemore Center and on an athletic field at the University of New Hampshire, and later in a parking lot session that resembled the screening of a drive-in movie. The latter happened after Rep. Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, died from COVID-19 a week after taking the oath of office as House speaker.
Restaurants, businesses and sporting venues are reopening as well. The Red Sox played the Marlins on May 29 with the only limit on Fenway Park’s capacity the 37,731 fans the ballpark will accommodate. If the Sox faithful can safely squeeze into Fenway’s seats to watch a 3-1 win over Miami, the Massachusetts Legislature ought to be able to meet in person.
Also worth noting is that the state of emergency that allowed the state wide latitude to issue restrictions on businesses and gatherings expired more than a week ago.
It would be cheap to use the Legislature’s reluctance to quit off-site sessions as a premise to doubt the work ethic of lawmakers. We’ll allow that most of our local reps and state senators rarely, if ever, take a day off. If not consumed with legislative businesses, they’re bouncing from vaccination clinic to groundbreaking to press conference. As loosened restrictions allow fairs and festivals to resume, their calendars will again overflow with those opportunities.
This isn’t about workload as much as it’s about transparency. David Tuerck, president of the Beacon Hill Institute, an economic policy research center, noted that negotiations on the $47 billion state budget proceed without lawmakers physically present. So did a decision to put to voters a constitutional amendment adding a tax surcharge to household incomes greater than $1 million.
“It’s time for them to come back to work,” he said. “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.”
Transparency isn’t exactly the Massachusetts Legislature’s forte. This is the same body, elected by and answerable to the people, that handles much of its budget deliberations in secret — even when everyone is physically present. It’s the same institution that doesn’t hold its committees to the same standards of openness required of the boards of health, along with every other government committee and commission, in the smallest towns in the state.
The most recent effort to rewrite legislative rules to ensure transparency and public access this past spring failed.
But with sunshine finally parting the clouds of the pandemic, it’s time to throw open the curtains at the Statehouse and allow the light inside. It’s time to usher lawmakers back to their chambers, and allow the public in-person access to our government.