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.