Posts Tagged ‘Adam Tamburin’

Special Report: Openness and Productivity on Beacon Hill

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

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.

(more…)

Special Report: In the Public Eye

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Massachusetts Lags Behind in Legislative Public Access

By Katie Lannan and Adam Tamburin

Although the Web has made some Statehouse information and online videos of hearings a click away for interested citizens, the use of the Internet has become a double-edged sword, limiting other aspects of transparency.

Staff members on 15 of 22 major committees surveyed by the Boston University Statehouse Program said members sometimes vote via e-mail. Rules about public access to these emails results are vague. Ten of the committee staff polled said the votes were not available to the public.

Lawmakers are increasingly absent from their committee’s public hearings. Many sessions are conducted with a fraction of the committee members present. Even sponsors of legislation are often no shows.

The extent of the problem is hard to measure. Only six of 22 committees surveyed said they took attendance. Few make available the minutes of their sessions.

Some legislators and observers say shrinking and roll call voting are symptoms of a trend that concentrates the decision making to the legislative leadership.

Peter Ubertaccio, professor of political science at Stonehill College, says this trend is a natural product of a firm political majority. Democrats have overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate

“It’s probably par for the course,” he said.

Ubertaccio said committee chairs use their power to set schedules that decide the fate of a bill in conjunction with party leaders; the chair can sit on bills that are controversial or don’t fit into the leadership’s agenda.

“Typically, bills that the leadership doesn’t want to come to the floor don’t come to the floor,” he said. “They can do that in a variety of ways that are outside of the public viewing.”

There was an attempt, led by Republicans at the beginning of the session to require all committee votes be posted on the Legislature’s website. It was defeated. Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, plans to propose new rules that would require committees to meet in person and produce records that would illuminate the process of lawmaking for Massachusetts citizens.

“It’s the democratic process. I mean, we represent people,” Winslow said. “I think it’s important for government to be open and transparent to the best [extent] that it can be.”

But it’s not just a partisan issue. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is sponsoring a bill that would make more public records available online. Eldridge said government transparency is important at all levels.

“There are decisions being made every day that impact people’s lives and businesses,” Eldridge said. “That information should be as transparent as possible.”

Massachusetts residents can find the full text of a bill on the Legislature’s website and follow its status. Viewers can watch live and archived webcasts of floor proceedings and selected committee hearings.

But Massachusetts remains behind the times when compared to other states, Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that all states except for Rhode Island offer live webcasts of legislative sessions, with 33 states archiving them and 35 posting live webcasts of committee hearings.

Twenty-one other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, make it easier for interested citizens to follow the process through bill tracking email subscriptions, which send out updates when the legislature acts on a particular piece of legislation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also says 14 states offer other email subscription services, such as Maine’s list for notification of public hearings.

Twelve states allow citizens to create personalized lists of bills they want to follow, free of charge, with another five states offering the same service for a fee. Massachusetts does not provide this service.

Eldridge said inaccessibility of information is often an unintended consequence of cutbacks. Many of the legislative aides surveyed said they don’t have the staff to keep formal minutes.

Whatever the reasons, Eldridge said a lack of openness can still foster a cynical and skeptical electorate.

“Unfortunately, the government is afraid of providing the information to the public or they don’t want to let them know all the reasons for why decisions are being made,” he said. “The fact that there have been some scandals at the government level contributes to that.”

A rush to the finish in Boston

Monday, November 21st, 2011

By Adam Tamburin, The Sun Chronicle

Nov. 21, 2011

BOSTON - The state legislative session ended for the year last week with a frenetic flurry of activity that left some area lawmakers reeling.

State Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, was frustrated by the familiar surge of last-minute bills.

“It’s always a mystery for me to understand,” she said. “In the private sector it would be looked upon as a crazy way to do business.”

After passing the annual budget this summer, the legislative session moved at a leisurely pace with and a primary focus on expanded gaming, pension restructuring and redistricting. The last two days of the session, however, saw several meaty bills rushed through the Statehouse.

For Poirier, the pace was too fast for each bill to face a robust round of debate. “People don’t have time to ask questions,” she said. “You just have to do it.”

The transgender rights bill, which flew through the House chamber on Tuesday night, was especially problematic for Poirier.

“A perfect example of democracy gone awry,” she said.

Poirier called House Democrats “brash and arrogant” for sidestepping a thorough debate on the issue by shoehorning it into the end of the session. She said she was not able to review the bill thoroughly.

“This was trying to be rammed down my throat without my knowledge of what it was,” she said. “What happened in the chamber that night was absolutely despicable.”

The answer to her complaints, Poirier said, is an even balance of Democrats and Republicans among the House’s 160 members. The Democrats have a 127-33 majority. “Eighty and 80 would give us the most wonderful government for the people,” she said.

As it is, the dwarfed Republican caucus, which includes five local representatives, is forced to play by the majority’s rules.

“Having 33 members out of 160 makes it very difficult,” Poirier said. “When [Democrats] want to be cooperative they are, when they don’t they do what they did that night.”

Still, Poirier said, the session did have its successes – even for Republicans, who doubled their numbers in the last election.

“The Republicans, with the increased size of our delegation, have been able to shape some debate,” said Rep. Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield.

Barrows, Poirier and Rep. Steve Howitt, R-Seekonk, all celebrated the passage of a budget amendment from the Republican leadership that sent money back into local communities.

The aim of the amendment was to ease financial burdens in small towns.

“It was nice to be able to give some” back, Barrows said.

Barrows also praised the Legislator’s work to raise punishments for violent crime.

In particular, he said, the passage of Melissa’s Law, which barred parole after a criminal’s third violent offense, and the retooling of the probation department.

“I was glad to see that we were able to give our prosecutors and judges the tools to keep these really bad individuals behind bars,” Barrows said.

Poirier also singled out the passage of the habitual offenders bill, which had bounced around the Statehouse for years, as a success.

“That was a tremendous law, and we were absolutely thrilled to pass it,” Poirier said. “There was nary a dry eye in the chamber.”

Howitt said he was pleased with the restructuring of the pension system for state employees, which upped the retirement age and changed the way pension amounts will be calculated.

The pension restructuring was “a major step to keep ourselves from going into catastrophic debt,” Howitt said.

Still, Poirier said, the continued success of the Republican caucus in the House depends on increasing its size even more.

“If there were more Republicans in the House, it would be a completely different place,” she said. This year’s increase “has made an impression. It’s just not enough yet.”

Link to the story here.