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Dispute over representatives’ access to bills shuts down House

BOSTON — With lawmakers still on summer break, disagreement over a policy limiting members’ in-session access to bills under consideration derailed a second straight House session Tuesday.

That prevented the advancement of local bills and final passage of a bill to bring the state into compliance with a federal rule aimed at moving 17-year-olds out of the adult corrections system.

The House adjourned quickly Tuesday without dealing with any legislation, shortly after Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, was declared “out of order” by presiding officer Rep. Paul Donato when she began the session by asking whether she could examine legislation “in the can.”

House leaders then had no choice but to adjourn after Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, doubted the presence of a quorum with less than a dozen members on hand for business in the 160-seat House. A similar dispute prevented the House from conducting any legislative business on Thursday.

The House is scheduled to meet again at 11 a.m. Thursday.

The Senate, where members and staff often receive pre-session copies of bills on which votes are expected, advanced local bills Thursday. With no bills arriving from the House, the Senate adjourned after less than 10 minutes.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo informed members last week that only Republican leaders or their designated member would have access to the “can” where bills are kept on the rostrum. The policy will be similarly enforced with Democrats who are not in leadership positions, according to House leaders.

A DeLeo spokesman said Tuesday that the next formal session has not been scheduled. During formal sessions, the Democratic majority is usually able to impose its will on the 30-member GOP caucus.

House Democratic and Republican leaders said last week that leaders of both parties have access to the bills on the agenda, and that all members are able to visit the clerk’s office before sessions to check out which bills are coming up for consideration.

Assistant Minority Leader Rep. George Peterson, who attended the session Tuesday, said DeLeo has traditionally allowed all members to look at bills in the can as a “courtesy.”

While Republican leaders do not have a problem with the change and back-benchers on the Democratic side have not raised any objections, some rank-and-filers in the GOP caucus view its enforcement as a strike against transparency.

“All they have to do is let us see what is in the can. I think it is the right thing for them to do,” O’Connell said after Tuesday’s session.

Debate and recorded votes are not allowed during informal sessions, which over the years have featured advancement of mostly local bills or legislation granting special sick leave benefits to state employees or authorizing alcohol licenses. More substantial bills have also advanced over the years during informal sessions when there is agreement among all members present.

Lombardo said a review of bills in the can prior to the session would not reflect bills released from committee or amendments that show up during the sessions.

“Things appear in the can that aren’t available in the clerk’s office,” Lombardo said.

He said rank-and-file lawmakers ought to be able to look at bills awaiting action in the House chamber.

Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, who did not attend Tuesday’s session, called it “just incredible” that O’Connell was ruled out of order when she asked to see bills awaiting action.

“The majority party in the House chamber denied an elected official the opportunity to view pending legislation,” Lyons said. “I am just hoping the majority party recognizes their change in policy is against every bit of openness and transparency they pretend to be in favor of.”

Donato said it is not true that bills up for action arrive on the House floor without going through the clerk’s office first. “There is nothing that is brought up from the floor surreptitiously, or in an untransparent way,” he said.

Legislation that brings the state into compliance with a federal rule by moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system is one of the bills held up by the dispute.

Other bills that House leaders had hoped to advance Tuesday included H3495 providing for recall elections in the town of Middlefield, H3286 authorizing the town of Sunderland to continue the employment of Richard E. Dickinson as a call firefighter.

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