Good government advocates call vote by lawmakers “undemocratic and unacceptable”
The Massachusetts House of Representatives blocked a barrage of proposed amendments to the 2021-22 legislative session this week, including a popular effort to bring more transparency to a chamber that studies have found to be woefully opaque.
The proposals were part of a “People’s House” campaign push by activists and advocacy groups, along with progressive and left-wing representatives, to bring committee votes to light, expand the time to consider legislation, and curtail the longevity of the House speaker’s reign. Filed by state reps Erika Uyterhoeven (D-Somerville) and Tami Gouveia (D-Acton), all three measures fell short of passing but received a solid base of unlikely bipartisan support.
The most contentious of the three proposals sought to make the results of committee votes accessible to the public. Massachusetts is one of a small number of states that doesn’t make its committee results available online.
The proposal proved to be electorally popular in 2020. In November, voters across 16 state House districts answered yes in a landslide to a nonbinding ballot question asking if they would want their representative to change House rules to “to make the results of all the votes in that body’s Legislative committees publicly available on the Legislature’s website.” At least 83% voted yes in every district and the no votes exceeded 15% in just one. In Uyterhoeven’s 27th Middlesex district, more than 94% voted yes.
Meanwhile, in Mindy Domb’s (D-Amherst) 3rd Hampshire district, 93% of voters supported publicly available committee results. She voted against the amendment.
Overall, more than 260,000 Bay Staters voted yes to just over 31,000 opposed.
“We owe it to our constituents, our supporters, the advocates and activists we work with, and most importantly to ourselves, to vote,” Uyterhoeven said before the roll call vote, “which means we do everything we can to thoughtfully and carefully consider bills put before us and share with the public where we stand.”
While the amendment garnered more support than the other proposals, it was defeated by a 41-117 margin.
“This is undemocratic and unacceptable,” Act on Mass tweeted after the vote. Massachusetts received the worst grade in a 2013 Open Legislative Data Report Card that tracks the accessibility of each state’s legislative data. Just four states got an F grade in the report: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Massachusetts. Neighboring Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York each received A grades while Vermont got a B. In 2008, Mass received an F in a Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition survey.
“It’s not a left vs. right issue as much as a top-down issue,” said Travis Benson, a field organizer with Act on Mass. “Transparency is power.”
But advocates did hope bringing more exposure to the overwhelmingly Democratic House could help pave the way for the proggressive change the party has been vocally supporting for years.
“We do think this is a bipartisan issue, but we do think it largely prevents progressive issues from getting through,” Benson said.
While transparency may make robust progressive legislation more possible, support for the amendments didn’t fall along ideological lines. Republicans almost unanimously joined left-leaning Dems in support of the amendments. Even though left-wing activists spearheaded the effort, the MassGOP made up the majority of the coalition voting for the rules changes.
“Our state ranks as one of the worst in the nation for transparency, and legislative leaders have done nothing to change that,” Rep. Lenny Mirra (R-Georgetown) told the Salem News last week.
Opponents to the amendment said it would overburden staff.
“Our staff is working tirelessly as a result of COVID-19, and to have them take on additional duties, to publish granular data would be unfair,” Rep. Dan Cahill said in opposition.
Another proposal sought to give representatives 72 hours to view legislation before a vote. That amendment was never brought to a vote, as a separate proposal to increase the time to 48 hours failed earlier in the session. Proponents said the extension would give representatives the time to more thoroughly understand the legislation and relay it accurately to their constituencies before voting. Opponents warned that the amendment could delay timely legislation, like crisis relief, though supporters clarified that a two-thirds majority could supersede the waiting period.
Earlier in the session, an amendment to administer eight-year term limits to the speaker of the House was brought to the floor. Supporters argued that, no matter who occupied the speakership, the nature of the position made it prone to entrenched power.
“Ultimately, this amendment isn’t about us,” Gouveia said before the vote. “This amendment is about putting in place a safety mechanism.”
Opponents to speaker term limits said the idea contradicted the lack of term limits for elected representatives.
“Why would we want to discriminate against the speaker of the House?” state Rep. James O’Day (D-West Boylston) said in opposition to term limits.
Rep. Jack Lewis (D-Framingham) questioned why term limits for the speaker should be a priority when it’s not an issue his constituents have brought to his attention.
“If this isn’t an issue we ran on, then why are we even considering it an issue today?” Lewis asked.
The amendment was shot down 35-125.