The coronavirus crisis is forcing the Legislature to rethink how they conduct crucial votes, and even amid a pandemic, the House and Senate are using characteristically different strategies to get legislation to Gov. Baker's desk.
Nothing comes easy on Beacon Hill, so arranging for the nearly 200 lawmakers to cast their votes in formal session while keeping members and staff safe is coming into conflict with free deliberation and open debate.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo found himself in Republican crosshairs at the center of a rare partisan dispute this week as he tried to chart the way forward for the House during the lockdown. In order to remotely assemble his nearly 160 members for the required recorded vote on legislation to let the state borrow short-term money to close a crisis-created budget gap, new emergency rules must be put in place to facilitate a formal session with most members debating and calling in votes electronically from home.
The Republican minority under Rep. Brad Jones (R-North Reading) wouldn't acquiesce to DeLeo's plan, which even after a round of concessions from DeLeo, would limit members' ability to speak during debates. Neither side reached a deal Thursday and sessions were halted until Monday when they'll try again to reach an accord.
"I know, occasionally, we don't suffer from an overabundance of debate around here. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But we don't need to go do this draconian thing," Jones told reporters outside the House Chamber Wednesday after he forced the day's session to come to an end and accused DeLeo of a "power grab."
In a statement, DeLeo called Republicans' maneuver blocking the rules changes and borrowing bill, "an unparalleled example of both recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility; a partisan political move meant to enhance their power at the expense of the taxpayer and the safety of the public."
Charlie Baker, the Republican governor at the heart of the call for more borrowing, wants to see the bill get to his desk soon to show credit ratings agencies the state will be in a position to begin to pay back any loans by the new July tax-filing deadline.
"I think it really needs to happen sometime in the month of May so that we have the month of June to actually execute on the transaction and be in a position by the end of June to say that we've, you know, done what we needed to do to deal with the transition associated with moving the final tax filing from April to July," Baker said Thursday at his daily briefing.
Across the State House's third floor in the Senate, President Karen Spilka is charting a more circumspect, and likely much slower, route to formal recorded votes on the fiscal bills progressives and moderates alike agree are imperative.
For right now, though, Spilka will allow in-person and voting-by-proxy for Baker's borrowing bill as soon as the House manages to get it to the upper chamber.
"That is for that particular vote. But then we anticipate going into a different mode," Democratic Senator Cynthia Creem told the State House News Service.
After the borrowing bill is settled, the Senate will start from scratch to draw up their own plans for conducting future remote sessions. A seven-member task force, which includes Republican Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester,) will begin to meet via teleconference next week with a goal of putting a plan in place for votes by June.