As it becomes clear that the Massachusetts House of Representatives will soon pick a new leader for the first time in a dozen years, now seems a good time to reflect on one of the most odious aspects of that chamber, and really the Legislature in general — a lack of transparency.
Maybe a new speaker of the House will champion reforms long needed in an elected body that puts together budgets behind closed doors, burying its spending decisions in arcane procedures and legislation that it make it nearly impossible for outsiders to follow.
Maybe a new speaker will demand that conference committees hammer out details of key bills in the open, for anyone to see.
Maybe a new regime will demand a culture of accountability where documents and reports are presumed to be public records, much like those created by nearly every other state and local agency in Massachusetts.
Maybe it’s all wishful thinking. As a matter of fact, given the way the “race” to succeed Speaker Robert DeLeo is shaping up, it almost certainly is.
Rep. Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, the House majority leader, is considered the person most likely to succeed DeLeo, who has disclosed that he is negotiating a job at Northeastern University. And Mariano does not appear to be the person to reform the chamber. Just consider how he’s stepping into the job, which by most accounts he has the votes to take.
Rep. Russell Holmes, D-Mattapan, who also says he will run for speaker, told State House News Service that the gavel seems to be bequeathed from one person to the next years before votes are ever taken. DeLeo was brought along by former Speaker Sal DiMasi, who quit just before he was indicted for corruption. DeLeo has since set up Mariano, who himself has a favored lieutenant in the chairman’s seat of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz. “It’s a pattern. It literally does not matter,” Holmes told the News Service.
“Many of us have been elected since DiMasi, and still his corrupt poisonous tree still determines who the speaker is 15 years later.”
The House doesn’t just select its leaders in the back rooms, it handles other important work there too. Take the police reform bill reported out of a conference committee at the beginning of the month, after four months of negotiations behind closed doors. Lawmakers, not to mention the public, had one day to absorb the 129-page bill and its details, then decide whether to vote for it.
Gov. Charlie Baker sent it back with significant recommended changes. The House does not appear to have enough votes to override the governor and enact the reform law on its own, and it’s uncertain it has the interest in going along with his amendments. So, lawmakers must dive back into the bill in a way that should have happened, in public, months ago. And they have until the end of the legislative session on Jan. 5 to do it — a tall order in light of the holidays.
It’s not that House leaders are blind to these faults. Four years ago, the Legislature revamped the state’s Open Meetings Law. Rather than apply reforms to themselves — the Legislature and governor’s office are notoriously exempt — lawmakers created a committee to study the issue. Which is to say, it went nowhere. A 14-person committee put off meeting for years, then never reported the recommendations they were charged with drawing up.
The half-dozen senators on the committee, including Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, issued their own suggestions to make committee hearings more accessible, and to record and make public committee votes. They also recommended revisiting the issue every five years with a new commission every “to further transparency in state government.”
They are sound recommendations that Mariano, Holmes or any other speaker of the House should take up and implement.
For too long the people’s Legislature has offered a dismal example of transparency or government accountable to the people who elect it.
The next speaker’s first priority must be to throw off the shades of secrecy and open the doors to the people.