With the Massachusetts House set to enter a new legislative session in January, possibly with a new leader, activists are ramping up efforts to reform what they see as a lack of transparency.
The House adopts its rules at the start of each legislative session, and while it previously rejected similar changes, activists are looking to January as an opportunity for rules reform.
“It’s very, very hard for activists or constituents to follow the process of a bill,” said Sophie Coyne, the Pittsfield coordinator for the advocacy group Act on Mass. “Once it’s in committee, you can’t necessarily see what the committee members are saying or how the committee members voted.”
Powerful committees allow House leaders to control the agenda behind closed doors, critics say, leaving constituents with little knowledge and few opportunities for participation. Act on Mass launched its Transparency is Power campaign in November, and it wants to make committee votes public, ensure that bills are released publicly at least 72 hours before a vote, and lower the threshold for votes on the floor to be publicly recorded.
A 2019 transparency push garnered strong support among Republicans and some among left-leaning Democrats, but only about one-third of lawmakers backed the changes.
For the 72-hour rule, for instance, 103 of the 160 lawmakers voted against the change, although all 32 Republicans were among the 55 who voted in favor.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, was the only Berkshire County lawmaker to vote for it, but she said she doesn’t see the change — activists say it would give constituents more time to contact their representatives — as a priority.
“I’m really interested in passing progressive legislation and doing what I need to do to help my district,” she said. “And I don’t think a 72-hour rule is going to advance either one of those things.”
Farley-Bouvier lists the bills she has voted for on her website, and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said he will disclose any of his votes, if asked. He believes that many lawmakers would do the same.
“I worked 26 years as a mayor, and everything was open. I never had a problem with any of that,” Barrett said. “I’ll be glad to tell anyone my vote on anything. I don’t see that as a big deal.”
But, lawmakers are not obligated to disclose their votes unless at least 16 representatives request a “roll call” to publicly record votes.
“We just want standardization,” Coyne said.
Barrett and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said they see some merit in giving more time between the public release of a bill and a vote.
Pignatelli cited a lack of time when he voted against a police reform bill that was released from conference committee a day earlier. He voted yes, though, on the version the House passed in July, and on a compromise last week, after Gov. Charlie Baker returned the bill with amendments.
“From a secrecy standpoint, I’ve never felt that,” Pignatelli said. “I do believe more time could sometimes help for legislators to understand bills [before voting].”
Act on Mass is looking to build support for its campaign through district teams, and 16 lawmakers have committed to supporting at least one of the three reforms, Coyne said.
Among those 16 is state Rep. Russell Holmes, D-Boston, who is challenging House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, to lead the House if Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, steps down, as expected.
Holmes made transparency a key theme when he announced his bid, although several lawmakers have said Mariano already has enough votes to win a speaker election.
Outgoing Reps. Jonathan Hecht, D-Watertown, and Denis Provost, D-Somerville, also criticized Mariano’s votes on the 2019 transparency reforms when they urged left-leaning Democrats not to support his speaker candidacy.
Yet, activists have said “structural issues” such as rules deserve attention, regardless of who is speaker.
A nonbinding November ballot question asked voters in some Massachusetts communities whether they wanted their representative to support making committee votes public. In the nearby 1st Franklin District, voters supported Question 4 by a 15,411-1,797 margin.
“To have a democratically functioning government, you want citizens to know as much as possible how their representatives are voting, and to have opportunities to provide input,” Coyne said. “Transparency is just generally something that everyone wants.”