Reps reflect on first remote House session

  • State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, tweeted a photo of his home voting set up for Wednesday’s House session. “Voting remotely for the first time in the history of the Massachusetts legislature — the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he wrote. TWITTER VIA STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 5/7/2020 2:58:46 PM
Modified: 5/7/2020 2:58:36 PM

BOSTON – State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, sat on her couch with her 13-year-old daughter and prepared to work although her “office” looked a little different than usual.

For the first time in state history, Massachusetts House lawmakers on Wednesday participated in a remote formal session where they could watch the session livestream as long as they had a solid internet signal and vote from anywhere as long as their phones could connect to their colleagues in the chamber.

Sabadosa used part of the time to show her daughter how legislating works.

“I got to participate in this historic event with my daughter on the couch watching and showing her how everything works on the floor, which was kind of, you know, it was special,” she told the News Service. “I cast it from my computer to the television so she could watch it with me.”

Sabadosa's experience mirrored that of many legislators who voted from home, offices, or other places off of Beacon Hill. The House used the formal session, their first since early March, to pass Gov. Charlie Baker's short-term borrowing bill to keep the state's cash flow moving through pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.

Lawmakers took two roll call votes, one to ascertain a quorum and a second unanimous vote to pass the bill. Only one representative who was not in the chamber offered remarks on the bill.

Several lawmakers who spoke to the News Service said the bill, a critical measure that did not generate any controversy, was a good opportunity to test the remote voting procedure. Some expressed concerns with the feasibility of the system during consideration of contentious bills or legislation with many amendments.

Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said the House needs to work out some kinks with remote debate.

“I think we still have to work out the people speaking remotely for debate, because I think as we get to maybe more contentious issues, we're going to have to have that figured out,” Michlewitz, who attended the session in person, told the News Service afterwards. “We wanted to see how today went, you know, make sure that we could do this process in a relatively smooth manner. And then I think we're gonna try to decide how to proceed.”

For over a week, House Republican and Democratic leaders butted heads on the proposed rules establishing remote voting and participation. Minority Leader Brad Jones repeatedly expressed concerns over how debate would unfold. After Wednesday's session, the North Reading Republican said the new debate setup will take time to get used to especially when the House takes up more controversial topics or stacks of amendments.

The only member who tried to speak from outside the State House during the session, state Rep. Denise Garlick, D-Needham, appeared to abruptly end her remarks after delayed audio feedback interrupted her speech.

“We did an easy bill (on Wednesday). An easy bill highlighted some shortcomings,” Jones said. “Hopefully those shortcomings will be addressed. But now you do a difficult bill where there's amendments, people are trying to queue up to speak on those, that piece of it didn't go that well.”

The House floor on Wednesday looked like a large phone-bank event with eight members fielding questions, taking attendance, and tallying the votes of the 20 members they each oversaw. Paperwork and chatter flowed throughout the chamber between those on the rostrum, in the well, and seated at their desks.

The remote voting system is needed to enable the House to settle disputed matters by recorded votes and to meet the roll call requirements associated with passing certain kinds of bills like land-taking and borrowing legislation, which in normal times would require a quorum – at least 81 representatives – to gather in the chamber. At some point, both the House and Senate will need to advance the fiscal 2021 budget, where numerous roll call votes are normally requested throughout the process.

Sabadosa originally planned to attend the first remote formal session in-person but decided against it after learning an employee for the building's cleaning contractor tested positive for COVID-19. The Northampton Democrat said it was a better idea to stay home and minimize the risk of contracting the respiratory virus. As for her experience? She said it was much cozier voting from home than in the House Chamber.

“I think the voting portion actually went pretty well. There was a technical glitch when Vice Chair Garlick started to speak, so it was really hard to hear her. I'm hopeful that that will get ironed out,” she said. “It's really important for people to be able to speak and for us to be able to hear them. We were able to hear I think better than ever and more clearly when Chair Michlewitz spoke but unfortunately the call in from Vice Chair Garlick didn't work out.”

The entire process on Wednesday relied upon the eight monitors who fielded phone calls from representatives, tallied their votes, and handed off the information to the presiding officer.

State Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, served as Sabadosa's monitor and the experience of calling in on Wednesday was pleasant, Sabadosa said, as some members had a few moments to catch up with each other for the first time in months.

“Then there was just also kind of a moment where we got to say hello to each other, which is not something that always happens on the House floor,” Sabadosa said. “We always come running in, hit the button for quorum votes but that doesn't mean you get to talk to everyone in your division.”

State Rep. Kimberly Ferguson of Holden served as one of two Republican monitors alongside state Rep. David Vieira of Falmouth. She said making sure everyone got the right information and participated fully was a challenge.

“The roll call part itself went fine. I think that that went off without a hitch from my perspective in Division 2A,” she told the News Service. “The challenge is going to be as debate progresses along further and there are amendments and more people wanting to speak ... some of those things I think are going to impact us. Just in the management piece of it.”

State Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, was part of the division that Ferguson oversaw. He said 20 members is a workable number for each monitor to handle, and that he shares the concerns about debating controversial legislation or bills with many amendments.

“Rep. Ferguson did a good job of corralling us all in. I'm just joking. But no, it worked out well,” he said. “This format works fine for some of these things that we have to get done that are relatively uncontroversial where maybe you have an amendment or two and votes are pretty much expected to be relatively easy. We get to something like the budget, and I would tend to believe that this kind of process is going to be unworkable on something that large.”


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