[MassLive] Massachusetts House rejects rules meant to boost transparency
BOSTON — A bill to increase funding for a program that helps communities preserve open space got 120 House sponsors last session, out of 160 members. It never became law. A bill changing shelter eligibility to ensure homeless children do not have to spend a night in an uninhabitable place received broad support, but no House vote.
These are two bills lawmakers are pointing to as examples of a common occurrence in the Massachusetts Legislature. Bills with support from large numbers of lawmakers never make it to the House or Senate floor. Often, they receive positive recommendations from committees that specialize in that subject, but get stuck in committees on Ways and Means, Rules or Bills in Third Reading, which review all bills.
A group of progressive state representatives, including several first-year lawmakers, on Wednesday united behind a proposal sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Hecht, D-Watertown, to make it easier for rank-and-file members to get bills discharged from committees without needing support from House leadership.
Hecht’s amendment would have let 40 House members petition to get a bill released from one of those three committees for consideration on the House floor. This would limit the ability of House leaders — Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and his appointed leadership team and committee chairmen — to set the agenda.
“A lot of really good bills get stuck in committee,” said Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, in an interview. “This is a way for representatives to be able to say this is a priority, we want to get it out of committee so we can take it up on the floor.”
Although Hecht withdrew the amendment before a House vote, Wednesday’s debate over House rules — both behind the scenes and on the House floor — illustrated some of the unhappiness some lawmakers have with the House’s traditional top-down leadership style.
Hecht also introduced several other amendments to the rules aimed at improving transparency and giving rank-and-file members and their constituents more of a voice.
Hecht’s proposed amendment would require bills to be made public 72 hours before a vote, rather than the current 24 hours.
He would require amendments to be made public 30 minutes before a vote when an amendment is introduced after debate already started. In some cases today, there is nothing preventing an amendment from being voted on immediately.
“Good rules give you voice,” Hecht said.
“In giving you voice and you voice and you voice,” Hecht said, pointing around the House chamber, “we will ensure that the whole range of diverse views, diverse experiences and diverse communities that you represent will be heard.”
Hecht said extended time is necessary to ensure that lawmakers and constituents have time to read bills and comment before a vote. He noted that many bills are long and complicated, and they change significantly during the committee review process.
Some lawmakers worried, however, that extending the time frame for review would slow the legislative process and remove flexibility, particularly at the end of a two-year session in July, when huge numbers of bills get passed quickly. They say there is ample time for public comment as bills go through the committee process.
“If we adopt this rule, I fear fewer and fewer pieces of good legislation will make it across the finish line by the end of the session,” said Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley. “If we have to wait three days in the last few weeks of July, it could be the end of a bill.”
Lawmakers rejected the extended time frame for reviewing bills by a 55-101 vote, and the extended time frame for reviewing amendments 47-109.
Another amendment by Hecht, which was rejected 49-108, would have made public any written materials considered by a committee, as well as committee votes.
Several new lawmakers said they supported Hecht’s amendments to bring more transparency to House proceedings.
Maria Robinson, D-Framingham, said particularly after the 2016 election, her constituents are politically active, and she is getting questions about legislative process. “I’m excited to support Rep. Hecht’s amendments in order to ensure there’s more transparency, more accountability and the ability for our constituents to be able to engage in the legislative process more directly,” Robinson said.
Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said she received 25 calls from constituents on Tuesday urging her to support Hecht’s amendments. “They feel that the process is too opaque, and they want to understand better how things work in this building,” Sabadosa said. “For me personally, I would like to make sure I’m reading what I’m voting on, that I fully understand it and what the implications are, and that I don’t cast votes into the abyss.”
Sabadosa said her district is filled with advocates who are confused and frustrated because they have no idea why, for example, bills with seemingly broad support are sent for further study.
Another controversial amendment that was withdrawn before the House floor debate was an amendment by Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, which would have imposed 10-year term limits on several House leadership positions.
DeLeo is entering his 11th year as speaker. House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, has led House Republicans since 2003, according to the State House News Service.
A group of good government advocates last year proposed several steps to make the Legislature more transparent, including making committee votes and testimony public.
But a special commission tasked with making recommendations on legislative transparency was unable to reach an agreement, and the Senate commission members filed recommendations without support from the House members.