The good news…
At the beginning of every tw0 year session, the MA House votes on its rules of operation. Last week a bipartisan group of dissenting legislators voted to change the House rules. One change would require that bills be made public 72 hours before a vote. “That would give representatives enough time to fully study bills and hear feedback from constituents, instead of being rushed to vote on complex legislation within a few hours of its release.” Another change would have put committee roll call votes online. Currently important votes made in committees are secret, not made public.
“By forcing votes on their proposals, the House dissidents were modeling how a legislative body should look: open debate, followed by on-the-record votes that give constituents the information they need to keep their lawmakers accountable.” Legislating in the dark?, The Boston Globe, 2/1/19.
The bad news…
The House voted down three important transparency amendments.
“Currently too many House decisions are made by leadership, instead of debated, amended, and voted on in the open so that constituents can see what their representatives say and how they vote. With all the details hashed out in smoke-filled rooms, the votes themselves often look like mere formalities. In other cases proposals never even receive a public roll call vote, making it impossible for the public to know where their representative stood.” Legislating in the dark?, The Boston Globe, 2/1/19.
How Pioneer Valley Reps Voted
Thank you to Representative Lindsay Sabadosa for helping to write the transparency amendments, and for voting YES on all three of them. Mr. DeLeo, Speaker of the House, voted NO on all of the amendments. Representatives Sabadosa, Blais, Carey, and Domb all voted to give reps at least 72 hours to read a bill before they voted on it. Representatives Blais, Carey, and Domb voted NO on two amendments: 1) allow reps 30 minutes to read any amendments filed on the floor before before voting on them., and 2) hearing testimony (for/against a bill) and any roll call vote taken in committee must be publicized. The House voted it down 49-109. The LWVMA presented testimony at a hearing in the fall of 2018 in support of publicizing roll call votes in committees and testimony before hearings.
Letter to Rep. Sabadosa before the House votes on amendments
January 25, 2019
24 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02133
Thank you for writing your column in the Hampshire Gazette, “On the importance of transparency – and transformation.” It was shocking to read about the chaotic voting procedure on swearing-in day and the lack of transparency for actions clearly orchestrated to obscure the un-democratic decision-making process.
A member of the Massachusetts LWV testified last September before the Special Legislative Commission Regarding Public Records. She spoke about how hard the league worked for passage of the MA Freedom of Information bill in 2016. And she went on to say that the LWV, at all levels of government “has always worked to improve transparency in government as one of the most essential elements of a strong democracy.” The LWV testimony given that day is attached with this letter. It includes recommendations for public notification, far in advance, of legislative hearings, with times, dates, and lists of bills. Currently the public is only given 48 hours notice. Open sessions of the House and Senate should also be subject to at least 48 hours notification. Other recommendations included public notification of the work of committees, such as summaries of key changes made to bills, and vote tallies, whether electronic or votes of the “yeas and nays.”
To our great dismay, we learned that the Special Legislative Commission Regarding Public Records was disbanded on the last day of December, 2018, without reaching any bipartisan recommendations, or writing a report! Fortunately, the Senate subcommittee of the Commission published a report. Highlights are attached with this letter. They include the recommendations the state LWV presented in their testimony. We are amazed to learn that testimony before the legislature is not made public! The senate report recommends “that joint committees shall make available upon request, all written testimony received prior to all committee hearings and any testimony or other materials submitted in-person during the hearing process.” MA Senate Recommendations on Public Records, Dec.31, ’18, p.6.
Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where the Legislature, judiciary, or governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from state public records laws. The Pioneer Institute concluded that this practice is unconstitutional. “The state constitution says the Legislature should be accountable to citizens ‘at all times.’”
We applaud your willingness to publicize the real need for democratic reform in the state Legislature, not easy to do while part of the system. As your title states “and transformation” you are taking on a second role as a change-maker. We encourage you to work together with your newly elected colleagues for making changes in the rules committee and with committee chairs, who control procedure. We also encourage members of the legislature to write a new open records law.
Also attached here is a letter printed in theBoston Globe,“Ex-lobbyist reveals how the House really works.” This lobbyist, Phillip Sego, was an environmental advocate with the MA Sierra Club. He worked with the state LWV in our extraordinary effort to pass a better bottle recycling bill a few years ago. You probably remember, it had huge citizen support and large bipartisan support in the legislature. But the bill never became law. Did it not have the approval of the leadership? This article documents the extreme power of the legislative leadership. It is time for TERM LIMITS FOR EVERYONE!
It is time for FULL TRANSPARENCY OF THE BUDGET PROCESS! The Senate Public Records Report, parts of which are included here, contains a summary of public records laws for each of the 50 states. Ours is just about the worst. You can read the summary for MA. It contains a report in the Boston Globe, 2011, describing how the budget was formed and passed in a total black hole, in complete secrecy. If we did not know this happened in Boston, we would think it took place in a third- world country!
Thank you for working for greater transparency and for transformation in our legislature. Your public education efforts are invaluable.
Northampton Area League of Women Voters