Special Report: Openness and Productivity on Beacon Hill

USA522letterBWPrintSession Featured Big Bills, Less Public View

BOSTON – Not long after state lawmakers ended their formal work for 2011 with a near-midnight November session, they began congratulating themselves for an exemplary season of legislating.

Among those accomplishments: casinos with the promise of new jobs and tax revenue, a law allowing municipalities to negotiate health insurance for public workers, balancing a budget in tough economic times and stabilizing the state’s pension plan.

“I would say this was one of the most impressive sessions over the past 30 years in terms of legislation passed,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.

But how much really got done this year, and, more importantly how much of the legislative process that moved these bills to law took place in public?

Numbers can be interpreted in different ways. Of the 206 bills passed in 2011, 39 – or 19 percent – affect the entire state – many in significant ways. Another 25 percent of the bills signed by Gov. Deval Patrick established sick leave banks for public employees. The rest were administrative laws pertaining to individual cities and towns, such as alcohol licenses and land transfers.

But behind the issue of legislative productivity looms a larger question about the process that moved various bills down the road, or left them on the roadside. A survey by the Boston University Statehouse Program of 19 major legislative committees that shape and move legislation found this process increasingly takes place outside the public view.

Among the findings:

- The staff for 15 of the committees polled said some voting is done through e-mails rather than in open executive sessions. The staff of 10 committees said the votes were not available to the public. State law requires that roll-call votes in executive sessions be recorded and made public. But committee rules do not address e-mail voting.

- Minutes and other details of committee meetings were not available from 18 of the committees, according to their staff. State law does not require such documentation of legislative committees, although it is required by other Massachusetts.

- Among the lack of documentation are records of attendance by committee members. Observers say fewer committee members now show up for public hearings as the work of the committees takes place through phone discussion or e-mail polls.

Kyle Cheney, a reporter for the State House News Service, which covers a majority of committee hearings, said his organization has begun to include attendance as part of its coverage.

“On balance, maybe most committees are 17 people, and four, five, six members show. That’s predominately the norm,” he said.

Other Statehouse observers, such as Pam Wilmot of Common Cause Massachusetts, which advocates open government, says the switch from real to virtual participation hurts the legislative process when citizens express their opinion to empty chairs.

“That is actually getting to be an embarrassment,” Wilmot said. “This is the public’s opportunity to come out and say what they think.”

The public is supposed to be able to follow the actions of their representatives, including their votes. The use of the Internet to debate and vote limits this ability to monitor lawmakers’ actions.

“They have these e-mail polls that they don’t announce publicly,” Cheney said. “It’s hard to tell how members voted. You might find out weeks later that a bill’s been released.”

Representatives for House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray referred questions about committee procedures to Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, who serves as chair for the Joint Committee on Rules and the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules.

Berry was not available for comment, but his chief of staff, Colleen McGlynn, said each committee sets its own rules about access and process.

“It is important to allow individual committees to adopt their own procedures as they know best the size and scope of the legislation before them,” she said. “Chair people are given a certain amount of autonomy to conduct proper review while soliciting public input.”

Boston University’s Statehouse Program sought comment from six committee chairmen; five did not respond to requests for interviews. Rep. Theodore Speliotis, D-Danvers, House chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, declined to comment on other committees’ procedures, but he said his committee provides records of committee testimony and votes to anyone who requests the information.

“It strengthens the positions of the Legislature to know what everyone’s thinking,” he said. “How can someone debate something if they don’t know what the other side is saying?”

Another long-term complaint about openness within the Legislature was raised again this session: the charge that the Beacon Hill leadership often stifles debate and individual member initiative.

The former Democratic Whip Charles Murphy, D-Burlington, went public with this criticism in early December when he complained that politics on Beacon Hill “all too often results in a top down leadership model where dissent is discouraged, debate is limited, decisions are made by a select few and formal sessions are rare.”

This was after Murphy had been pushed out of office by DeLeo.

But even neutral observers such as Widmer note a trend towards more control emanating from the House speaker and Senate president’s office.

“I wouldn’t say that this session has had less debate than recent years, but part of the trend towards more power in the leadership has been less floor debate, particularly in the House,” said Widmer. “A lot of the debates are taking place in the legislative caucuses behind closed doors.”

The movement of debate to private Democratic caucuses results in a lackluster discussion on the floor of the Legislature, according to Republican Minority Leader Rep. Bradley Jones.

“Sometimes when you go up to the floor now, all the questions have been asked and answered,” he said. “Sometimes it would be better if those questions were asked in the public view because it would better inform the public and the media.”

Some argue this leadership style has its benefits. This year’s legislature was able to pass legalized gambling, pension reform and protection for transgender people – three issues that sat on Beacon Hill for years.

But such result arguably comes at the cost of open debate, especially in the rush at the end of the session. When Republicans attempted to saddle the transgender rights bill with additional amendments that would need to be debated individually, DeLeo and the House leadership quickly limited debate on the bill, forcing it through by dropping the extra amendments.

Such tactics were not limited to partisan politics. When Senate Democrats fell into angry floor debate over an amendment to the casino bill that would require a five-year, cooling-off period before former legislators could work in the gambling industry, Murray quickly shuffled members off to a Democratic caucus.

When the senators returned to the floor, they quickly passed a compromise without further debate that reduced five-year restriction to one year.

Murray’s spokesman, David Falcone, said debate was not stifled.

“It was originally offered as five years and the body ultimately decided on one year,” he said. “But, remember, it was zero years in the original bill. We added it, and the conference committee kept it.”

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Editors Note: This story was written by Lester Black and Andrea Aldana based on
the reporting of Black, Aldana, Krista Kano, Katie Lannan, Alyssa Moni, Marjorie
Nesin and Adam Tamburin.

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