Six hundred and forty-one days after former governor Charlie Baker terminated the COVID-19 state of emergency and rescinded most pandemic-related restrictions, Massachusetts House members will finally return to voting in person.
The House voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt new rules for the legislative session, which formally began last month. The proposal did away with an emergency rule that allowed legislators to vote on and debate bills from their homes, offices, or wherever else they chose during formal sessions.
House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano said the House also will drop its vaccine requirement, which had kept a handful of representatives from entering the chamber.
“We just felt that the being in the chamber is important for the exchange of ideas and discussion and debate about issues,” Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, told reporters before the vote Wednesday. “As ideas germinate, and you start to hear different opinions and different sides of issues. You can change your mind, opinions can evolve. I think it’s part of the legislative process.”
The formal sessions will still be live-streamed and archived for future reviewing, Mariano said, and committee hearings will operate with a permanent hybrid structure for lawmakers and members of the public to attend both in-person and virtually.
The rules allow for members to vote remotely in special circumstances, such as a lawmaker serving in active military duty or dealing with a medical condition.
Under the old rules, created as part of a “state of emergency” declaration during the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives could cast votes and debate bills remotely.
The new rules package, which included other tweaks to the ways the House operates, was sponsored by Representative William C. Galvin, a Canton Democrat. When he presented the package, he was met with applause.
“Leadership has kept the House working through uncertainty, meeting the needs of our most vulnerable, and always facing fear with facts,” Representative Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat, said in a congratulatory speech. “We would never have arrived at this day without the commitment of so many sitting here, and then offices all over the State House.”
The Senate has not yet voted on its own set of rules, so it is unclear whether the chamber will take a similar approach. Senate President Karen E. Spilka declined a request for comment.
The House rejected three amendments to the rules package Wednesday, including one filed by Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat, that would require committee votes to be made public. While making such votes public is a common practice in many states, as well as in the US Congress, Massachusetts voters remain in the dark on how their representatives vote when bills come before committees.