With lawmakers dialing in from across the state, the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday voted remotely for the first time in the body’s near 400-year history, and officially relaunched formal lawmaking amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The historic session, which lasted roughly an hour, included one substantive vote: a 157-0 roll call approving a bill that would allow the state to borrow billions of dollars over the next eight weeks to help pay its bills.
It came amid a surreal scene. As a smattering of people, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, held court in a mostly empty chamber, dozens of representatives called in to a network of conference call lines, where other lawmakers gathered and recorded their votes.
A livestream offered a view inside, showing a half-circle of stanchions surrounding the rostrum to separate DeLeo, House clerk Steve T. James, a court officer, and others — all of whom were wearing masks — from the rows of seats where representatives would otherwise be stationed.
Where they actually were ran the gamut. Representative William Driscoll Jr., a Milton Democrat, tweeted a photo from his car parked in the Blue Hills Reservation, the livestream playing from a phone propped up on his dashboard. Representative Tram T. Nguyen shared a picture of her logged in from a kitchen countertop. Representative Susannah Whipps showed off a plate of vegetables on her Twitter feed.
House leaders discussed for weeks how to relaunch formal legislative sessions amid the spread of COVID-19, after spending the better part of two months moving bills through informal gatherings with no debate and where a single “no” vote could stall legislation.
The set of emergency rules was approved Monday, but only after a heated, partisan dispute that started when House minority leader Bradley H. Jones blocked the rules package, arguing that it effectively limited how often most representatives would be allowed to speak.
He had accused DeLeo of using the crisis to “achieve more power,” while the Winthrop Democrat lashed out at what he called the Republicans’ “recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility.” (The House couldn’t pass the borrowing bill unless the House held a formal vote.)
Jones and DeLeo ultimately agreed to a revision this week that allows some Republicans, including Jones, more chances to speak during legislative debates under the new rules, which could remain in effect until as late as January.
Such back-and-forth was largely absent from Wednesday’s otherwise smooth session, though it included some awkward but harmless hiccups as lawmakers adjusted to their new remote reality.
Shortly before DeLeo opened the session, a voice fluttered through on the livestream.
“Hello?” a lawmaker asked.
Another voice quickly cut in, informing him he had accidentally called a number connected to a microphone within the chamber. “You’re actually dialed into the rostrum line,” he was told.
Later, when Representative Denise Garlick called in to speak on the borrowing bill, a delayed feedback from the session was audible over the livestream — trailing the chamber by several moments and causing Garlick to pause for several moments after DeLeo recognized her.
When she wrapped her testimony, a long pause again settled over the line, and the phrase “[Audio difficulties]” popped up on the livestream feed.
“Is the representative finished with her remarks?” DeLeo eventually asked.
“Yes,” Garlick said.
Representative Harold P. Naughton was the only lawmaker not to cast a vote, but the Clinton Democrat had a good excuse: A lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, he was activated roughly a month ago and is reporting to Hanscom Air Force Base through May 31, he said Wednesday.
“I’ve been pushing back information that I feel my colleagues need from the vantage point of the National Guard,” he said in a phone call, adding he did listen to the session. “It was pretty historic.”
The Legislature owes its roots to Colonial times, when the “General Court” gathered for the first time in 1629 in London and later became the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Amid its various iterations, members have met in person to cast votes, and House leaders initially questioned whether the state’s constitution even allowed it to conduct remote voting.
The House’s emergency rules try to limit who could be in the chamber to DeLeo and Jones; Aaron Michlewitz, DeLeo’s budget chairman; eight “monitors” who would tally votes from members on conference call lines; and a few other Republicans, Democrats, and staff.
The bill the chamber passed Wednesday allows the state treasurer to borrow any “necessary” amount this fiscal year and pay it back by June 2021. Donning a gray mask, Michlewitz said from the House floor that the amount could be “in the range of $3 billion,” though it will depend on how the state’s finances weather the pandemic.
The legislation was first filed by Governor Charlie Baker amid fears the state could face a budget gap after pushing its April 15 tax filing deadline into July, potentially diverting huge chunks of money it would otherwise collect now into next fiscal year.
That appeared to already be happening. Massachusetts tax revenues plummeted last month, dropping more than 50 percent below what the state collected at this time a year ago. The $1.98 billion in taxes the state collected in April — typically the biggest tax month — was more than $2 billion below state projections.
“A staggering number to say the least,” Michlewitz said.
So, after Garlick and Representative Todd Smola, a Warren Republican, spoke in support of the bill, DeLeo teed up a roll call. Minutes later, he documented the 157-0 tally to officially move the bill to the Senate, where leaders are weighing their own rules to hold a remote session.
“Congratulations,” DeLeo said to representatives watching and listening in. And he rapped the gavel to close the session.