Opinion: What’s Happening With Our State Government?Massachusetts’ Secret State House And How To Fix It

Photo: Massachusetts State House (Wikipedia)

By Maya Chandrakasan, Sherman Street

In a few months myself and my fellow Belmont High School seniors will walk across a stage and receive our diplomas. It’s safe to say this past year has been difficult for all of us. But these challenges are only the beginning of what lies ahead for my generation. As we enter college and the workforce in a world ravaged by the coronavirus, government inaction will be blamed on “partisan gridlock.” Federal legislators may use their precarious majority to defend themselves, but for Democrats in the state house there are no excuses for inaction. 

The Democratic party holds a veto-proof supermajority in the Massachusetts state legislature which they have had for more than three decades. So why haven’t we been able to pass any significant climate legislation since 2008?

Despite being a relatively progressive state, Massachusetts has one of the least transparent statehouses in the country: bills die in committee, the public has little time to object to a bill before it is voted on, and recorded floor votes on legislation are not guaranteed. 

Massachusetts is in a minority of states in the country that do not publicize or disclose how legislators vote in committees. While that may seem like a technicality, most lawmaking is done in legislative committees, and most legislation is killed in committees. A popular 100 percent Renewable Energy bill, which took six years to write, was killed in committee without ever making it to the House floor for a vote. All of these barriers inhibit action and change: our democracy is dying behind closed doors. 

This isn’t to attack some of the great state legislators, many of whom truly care about their constituents. This is about a broken state house rules system that both blocks constituents from holding their reps accountable, and reps from countering powerful house leaders for fear of retribution.

Last month, myself and other constituents in the 24th Middlesex district joined our state representative, Dave Rogers, on a call asking he sign onto the following three transparency amendments:

• All votes held in legislative committees be publicly disclosed so that constituents have the opportunity to see how their representatives are voting.

• Each bill be made public 72 hours prior to a final vote (extending the current 24 hour window) to ensure that anyone who wants to discuss the bill with their representative has that chance.

• The threshold for a vote to be publicly-recorded in the House of Representatives be reduced to eight from the current 16 representative requirement so that more bills can be publicly voted on. 

Unfortunately Rogers has not yet given a public commitment to voting for these transparency amendments. In the past, Rogers has proven himself to be a progressive legislator responsive to constituent concerns. We are fortunate to have a legislator who will disclose his committee votes despite House rules. However, just because Rogers votes the right way does not mean that other reps will, and in order to pass a veto-proof bill we need more than just his vote; in other words, to actually pass the legislation he cosponsors and introduces, we need transparency. 

In the coming days, the statehouse will vote on a new set of rules for the upcoming legislative session. The various crises of this past year have proven that state and local governance matter. From comprehensive police reform to climate bills to eviction moratoriums, there are numerous life-saving policies that can be implemented on the state level. Unfortunately, none of those have, or will be passed without serious change and accountability. 

The rules voted on will be law for the next two years and will influence what can get done in this crucial time. As we turn the page on a bungled federal response to the most pressing issues of our time, we must begin to repair our government from the bottom up. That begins with a transparent Massachusetts statehouse. 

I urge anyone who cares about virtually any issue to contact Rogers by email (dave.rogers@mahouse.gov) or phone (617-722-2637) and ask him to vote for these three transparency amendments to state house rules for the next legislative session. Learn more about our broken state house at https://actonmass.org/the-campaign/ and join our district team to get involved in our final push for a more accountable state legislature. 

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