BOSTON — As the Legislature begins another two-year session, good government groups are trying to pry open Beacon Hill's often opaque workings.

Act on Mass, a coalition of progressive groups and unions, is among those calling on state House and Senate leaders to improve transparency and accountability as they consider legislating rules for the biennial session.

Among its recommendations: disclose votes on pending bills by legislative committees, reduce the number of legislators needed to require a roll call vote from 16 to 8, and give lawmakers — and the public — at least 72 hours notice before a bill comes up for a vote.

"Massachusetts has one of the least transparent statehouses in the country," said Ryan Daulton, the group's campaign manager. "There's a lot of information that just isn't accessible to the public, from testimony on bills submitted to legislative committees in public forums to how individual lawmakers voted."

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the Legislature is "notoriously secretive" and more transparency is needed.

"Measures to open up the lawmaking process are long-overdue," said Silverman, whose group hasn't taken a formal position on the recommendations. "As citizens, we need more transparency to not only better understand how our government operates but to also keep tabs on our representatives and hold them accountable."

The legislative session got underway Jan. 6, and lawmakers have already approved a major climate change bill before setting new rules, which is normally the first order of business for both chambers.

Newly elected House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, has delayed debate on the chamber's rules for six months, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mariano told lawmakers in a recent email the House Rules Committee will be conducting a "thorough review" of the chamber's rules and procedures before then.

"The pandemic is not over and the challenges it presents will not wait patiently for the Legislature to complete its typical housekeeping functions at the start of session," Mariano wrote.

There are nearly 30 committees in the House of Representatives and Senate, each of which makes its own rules about whether to open its proceedings to the public or disclose votes taken by lawmakers.

In many cases, hearings on bills affecting millions of people — including deliberations on the state's $46 billion budget — are closed to the press and public.

Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, said he also wants more transparency. He said Mariano has an opportunity to chart a new direction by updating the rules.

"The public has a right to see the stuff, and we make it damn near impossible for the average voter to see committee testimony or how we voted on the bills," he said. "It's disgraceful. Every other state in the country has figured out how to do this, but for some reason we haven't."

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said he too supports making legislative committee votes public to keep constituents better informed.

"I think the public has a right to know where their representatives stand on particular issues," he said.

But Tucker said he isn't sure about a 72-hour waiting period for bills, noting there are situations where lawmakers need to move quickly, especially during the pandemic.

"If there's an emergency bill that comes up we could be hamstrung if we have to wait 72 hours to take action," he said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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