BOSTON — With the House scrambling this week to put in place emergency rules for remote voting, Senate leaders say they have a short-term plan to pass a borrowing authorization bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, but will take their time putting together a more complete plan for formal sessions.
Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem will lead a bipartisan group of seven senators to craft a plan that would allow the Senate to begin holding formal sessions, with recorded roll call votes, by early June.
In the meantime, Creem told the News Service that Senate President Karen Spilka devised a plan to pass the governor's borrowing bill, which requires a roll call vote, as soon as it clears the House. The plan would allow for three options for senators to cast a vote, including in person or by proxy through another senator.
"That is for that particular vote. But then we anticipate going into a different mode," Creem said.
Baker filed the borrowing bill (H 4593) in late March to authorize Treasurer Deb Goldberg to borrow money as a bridge to July to ensure that as a result of the decision to postpone the income tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15 that the state had sufficient cash on hand to meet its obligations.
The House had hoped to pass the bill on Thursday, but leaders so far have been unable to push through a broader package of rules to allow members to vote without coming into the chamber. House Republicans on Wednesday blocked the rules over concerns about the process for debating future bills, and Democrats rejected a Republican amendment that would have allowed just the borrowing bill to pass for now.
How they'll vote
If and when the House passes the bill, Creem said the Senate will be ready and has already talked the process through with Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester.
"We need to take that up very soon after the House does," Creem said.
For senators who wish to vote in person, Creem said they will be allowed to enter the chamber one at a time and wearing a mask to cast their vote.
The second option would be for senators to remain in their offices and have a court officer verify their presence and record their vote. This is a process that has been used for senators who are ill or pregnant, and will require a change in the Senate's rules to extend it to the current coronavirus emergency.
The third option for senators who don't wish to come to the State House at all will be to vote by proxy through another senator. To use this option, a senator would send a letter to the clerk indicating how they would like to vote, and a senator who is physically present in the chamber would announce that vote during the roll call.
Figuring out how to conduct formal sessions in the future, however, will take some more time, Creem said.
Spilka tapped Creem to lead a working group to develop a process for voting, admitting amendments and other procedures taken for granted when all senators, staff and clerks can be in the same room. Creem will be joined by Sens. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, Sal DiDomenico of Everett, Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, Joan Lovely of Salem, James Welch of Springfield and Tarr.
Creem said the committee represents diversity in age, sex and geography, as well as health considerations.
"We're worried about the staff as well as senators so we have to be sure the Senate is operating in a safe and secure way," Creem said. "It may be remotely. It may be partly remote. I don't have an opinion."
One thing that might have to go, Creem said, are late-night sessions, because members who live far away aren't going be staying in Boston hotels.
"There's lots and lots to think about, what's right and safe for everybody. We have to do the right thing, and we can't say one thing and do something different like the vice president who didn't wear a mask," Creem said, referring to Vice President Mike Pence.
Creem said she reached out to the committee members Wednesday to set up an initial Zoom call to start the discussion later this week or early next week.
The timeline for final recommendations, she said, would depend in part on whether Baker starts to relax some of the social distancing guidelines and business closures after May 18.
"Our expectation is that we could start these formal sessions the beginning of June," Creem said.
The Newton Democrat said she was unaware of any other bills Democrats were looking to pass that had opposition, but said if something came up another one-time solution could be used. The Legislature has managed to pass some legislation informally, including an eviction and foreclosure moratorium that required a conference committee.