Massachusetts Senate plan eyes public access to testimony, votes


State House News Service

Published: 02-05-2023 7:57 PM

BOSTON — The House and Senate seem to once again be on different tracks when it comes to legislative transparency, potentially teeing up the branches for a do-over of their 2021 negotiations on internal operating procedures, which ended in an impasse.

A requirement for joint legislative committees to publish a breakdown of legislator votes on whether to advance or kill a bill features in the Senate Rules Committee’s proposed Joint Rules package released Thursday.

The rules would govern House-Senate interactions over the coming 2023-2024 term, and their release comes a day after the House shot down a nearly identical vote-transparency proposal in its own rules debate.

Any changes to the Joint Rules need to be agreed on by both branches, which is usually accomplished by a private six-member conference committee. Negotiators in the 2021-2022 session failed to reach such an agreement, and the vote transparency language was an area of disagreement. As a result, the Legislature operated for two years under the previous term’s operating rules.

The Senate committee’s proposal Thursday copied verbatim from the 2021 transparency effort. Its changes to Rule 1D include a requirement that “[a]ny recorded votes on a favorable or adverse report on an individual bill, taken by roll call or electronic poll of each member, shall be posted on the website of the General Court.”

In the House this week, Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven sponsored an amendment that would have tacked on language nearly identical to the Senate’s proposal. That measure was defeated without debate and on a voice vote since no representative attempted to force a roll call.

Uyterhoeven’s amendment would have also applied to votes on study orders, instead of just votes on bills. Study orders are effectively a tool for ending all further consideration of a bill for the two-year term, without voting to give the bill an adverse report.

Another section of the Senate proposal appeared verbatim in the branch’s 2021 rules push – to require that committees reproduce public testimony they receive, where practical, and make it available to the public on request. An exemption is included for “sensitive personal information” in the testimony, which could be redacted.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

In a separate draft of internal Senate Rules for the upcoming term, the committee opted to keep in place a remote-participation option for formal sessions.

The House voted Wednesday to finalize its own internal rules, agreeing to changes which will bring representatives back to Beacon Hill for in-person formal sessions.

The Senate’s move to keep a no-excuse remote option for formal sessions is “part of the best practices, and what’s now happening really across other legislatures,” Rules Committee Chair Joan Lovely said, adding that “there may be an occasion where someone is ... sick, so they can’t be here – and we don’t want them here if they’re sick, frankly.”

The Salem Democrat said she doesn’t expect senators to commonly take advantage of remote access.

“All members want to be in the chamber,” Lovely said. “We feel like we’ve turned the corner to be able to be back in this building, be back safely, and so I anticipate that the chamber will always be full for formal sessions.”

She said “we’re going to operate pretty much how we have for the past two sessions” under the proposed rules, which – like the House – feature a hybrid structure for committee hearings that became popular during the pandemic. Members of the public can testify either in-person or virtually in the hybrid hearings.

Asked whether she had communicated ahead of time with House Rules Chairman William Galvin of Canton about their visions for how hybrid hearings would work, Lovely said she had “not interfaced” with him.

The Senate’s proposal for Joint Rules mirrors the House plan in bifurcating the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture into two committees, with one focused solely on agriculture. The Senate package would also do away with the Joint Committee on Export Development, another area of agreement with the House’s vision for the joint committee structure.

Under the Senate Rules plan, which applies to Senate-only committees, the Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts would be replaced by a new Senate Committee on Juvenile and Emerging Adult Justice, Lovely said.

The plan also calls for a new Senate Committee on the Census.

Senators teed both packages up on Thursday for debate Feb. 9, with amendments due by 5 p.m. on Monday.