Under new House rules, public can continue to join hearings remotely
The House on Wednesday unanimously adopted its rules for the two-year term that began four weeks ago. They agreed to eliminate a pandemic-era policy that allowed representatives to participate in sessions and vote remotely.
The rules package also outlines a new hybrid committee hearing structure that will allow for both in-person and remote participation from most legislators and the public.
The House rejected nearly every proposed amendment that was not withdrawn and opted to largely stick with the package rolled out by top Democrats on Tuesday.
"We're gonna keep a segmented remote voting on the committee hearings, which allows greater participation from our constituents and the members," House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Wednesday after a caucus of House Democrats. "But we will not have a in-session remote component any longer."
Mariano said that nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in Massachusetts, he felt that it was time to get back to the House's old formal session structure, in which members gather in the House chamber to talk about bills and have face-to-face conversations as they try to sway their colleagues.
"We just felt that being in the chamber is important for the exchange of ideas in the discussion and debate about issues. And we've missed that, so we wanted to make sure that the new folks experience it," he said. "As ideas germinate and you start to hear different opinions and different sides of issues, you can change your mind and opinions evolve. So I think it's part of the legislative process, it always has been and always should be."
The ACLU of Massachusetts and Common Cause applauded the hybrid hearing plan and urged the Senate to adopt it.
"This hybrid hearing rule reflects great leadership: In many communities across the state, remote and hybrid meetings significantly and equitably increase public participation in local government," the groups said.
Representatives, mostly Minority Leader Brad Jones, filed 16 amendments to the House Rules proposal by Tuesday's deadline. Eleven of those were yanked from consideration before the House got to them, like one requiring the Ethics Committee to report every two years on the number of complaints it received and how many of them had merit.
Three amendments were rejected, including one from Jones that would have given House members one hour, instead of half an hour, to review consolidated amendments, often large amendments that pull together many ideas. Those mega-amendments are usually several pages in length and combine dozens of separate proposals.
"Sometimes that can be a 20-page document, and every single member that is in this body has to then pick up that document and carefully scan through it to determine what is actually in that consolidated amendment," said Rep. Todd Smola, a Warren Republican, adding that "these are cumbersome, there's many detailed things that are involved, and in order for us to understand and digest, we need time in order to do that."
Rep. Sarah Peake rose in opposition and said budget sessions feature "long days that drag late into the night" and "every minute and moment counts."
"So to add an unnecessary padding of the time is not something that we should support here today in our rules," Peake said in her argument against the extra half-hour for review.
That amendment failed 23-130 on a party-line vote, as did another Jones proposal to give representatives 30 minutes to review so-called technical amendments before voting on them. A Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven proposal seeking to publish full committee votes on the General Court's website was rejected on a voice vote without debate.
Representatives adopted two amendments in addition to a corrective amendment, which dealt largely with typographical errors. One will allow Jones to appoint two assistant ranking minority members to the Ways and Means Committee (rather than just one), and another will allow the speaker and minority leader to each have two employees (instead of one) in the House Chamber if the House opts to return to remote sessions down the road.
Representatives voted 153-0 to adopt the House Rules, a departure from previous years like 2021, when the Republican caucus voted in opposition.
The hybrid committee hearing language was included both in the House Rules, where it would apply to House-only committees, and in the House's Joint Rules proposal where it would govern the majority of committees on Beacon Hill that include both representatives and senators. The Senate would need to agree with that piece of the Joint Rules before it could take effect.
Of the 10 amendments proposed to the Joint Rules, seven were withdrawn without a vote, including one that dealt with transparency in committee polls. The other three were rejected, mainly along party lines, including one change that Rep. Paul Frost of Auburn said would have required the branches to agree on a minimum amount of local aid to municipalities by March 31 each year, ahead of the traditional April kickoff to budget debate.
Frost argued that giving an earlier heads-up to towns and cities about how much money they might see from the state would help them plan their local budgets during town meeting season. Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett opposed the measure and said leaving local aid levels until budget debate later in the spring means lawmakers have a more accurate revenue forecast on which to base the figures.