BOSTON — A revised set of joint legislative rules will address the problem of overloaded legislative hearing agendas but misses some opportunities to expand transparency in government, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and other lawmakers say.
“This is one of the nation’s leaders in technology saying we can’t put the roll call vote of a committee on the web where people can see it,” Tarr, the Gloucester Republican, said during brief debate before the rules were adopted.
Tarr also noted The Sunlight Foundation, which promotes openness in government, gave Massachusetts an F grade this week for the Legislature’s website — an assessment that Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg said “puzzled” him given advancements in transparency in recent years.
Along with some technological critiques, the foundation noted “roll call votes not posted on site in meaningful way” and criticized the “dearth” of information prior to 2009.
Rosenberg touted reforms in the new joint rules that cap the number of bills that may be heard at a single hearing at 50 and keep alive locally approved home rule petitions from one year to the next. The Judiciary Committee over the years has frequently packed its hearing agendas with bills dealing with a long list of unrelated topics, forcing marathon hearings that have frustrated lawmakers and attendees.
The House did not agree to a Senate plan calling for the posting of roll call votes taken in the branches, but Rosenberg said the Senate plans to begin posting its own roll call votes on May 1. Hard copies of roll calls are available in the State House after votes and the votes are reflected in legislative journals, but are typically not clearly displayed on the Legislature’s web site.
Rosenberg said the National Conference of State Legislatures had given Massachusetts a much higher rating for transparency.
“We feel pretty proud of what we’ve been doing. Every year we’re adding more and more features, more and more transparency,” Rosenberg said, noting improvements in timely access to information about the movement of bills, hearing and session agendas and calendars, and the posting of journals, which include breakdowns of roll call votes.
“The clerk’s office is now working on tying those votes to the bill tracking,” Rosenberg said.
Tarr also said the House and Senate should have used a conference committee, which would have included Republican lawmakers, to resolve joint rules differences, rather than have Democratic branch leaders resolve the issues informally and unilaterally.
The Senate’s adoption of joint rules during a formal session followed a vote during a lightly attended informal session in the House to send the Senate a final package of joint rules.
Tarr send the new set of joint rules was “better than the rules that we have” and thanked Rosenberg, who he credited with the work of steering the rules package to passage.
A Senate plan that would have required roll call votes taken in joint committees to be posted online with a contextual statement did not survive in the final version, which leaves intact language that such votes “shall be available for public inspection upon reasonable notice and during regular office hours.”
“The House said that the Senate should not interfere with the operations of the House, when they take their roll calls they should have whatever policies they want, so we did not get it into the joint rules that both the House and the Senate would do it,” Rosenberg said.