Shortly before 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Massachusetts House scheduled its long-awaited rules vote to begin at 1 p.m. the next day.
Lawmakers had until a 5 p.m. deadline Tuesday to review the 115 pages of legislation — much of it was recycled from previous years — and file amendments. A day later, on Wednesday, the House rejected amendments that would have reinstated term limits for the speaker of the House, publicized committee votes and required bills to be released at least 48 hours before a vote.
Advocates have spent months calling for the House to make its legislative process easier for constituents and rank-and-file lawmakers to navigate, and they see the way the past two days unfolded as a case in point for the cause. Rules that allow for quick turnarounds between the release of a bill and a vote, they say, have denied constituents sufficient opportunity to engage with their elected officials before decisions are made on key issues, such as police reform and curbing climate change.
“This vote really became a referendum on transparency,” said Ella McDonald, communications director for Act on Mass, which has led advocacy for transparency. “Some people who have campaigned for, donated to or canvassed for their reps were very disappointed to see their individual reps defer to leadership instead of the voters who elected them.”
While most Republicans supported the measures favored by a coalition of largely left-leaning advocacy groups, the vast majority of Democrats, including all four Berkshire County representatives, sided with leadership to reject the changes.
Lawmakers did approve changes to stream all future sessions online and to allow committee leaders to decide whether to include remote participation in hearings. The rules approved Wednesday are set to take effect Oct. 1, and emergency rules adopted during the pandemic will remain effective until then.
The House also agreed to list the names of representatives who vote against legislation in committee, a change that advocates see as a partial concession to their demands. But, representatives can continue to reserve their rights or choose not to vote without having their names publicized.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she did not find it necessary to make all committee votes public but called the decision to publicize “no” votes “an excellent compromise.”
“I just find it’s my own responsibility to get information about how I vote to my constituents,” she said.
Although Farley-Bouvier voted in 2019 to require bills to be released 72 hours ahead of a vote, she voted with the rest of the Berkshire County delegation Wednesday against the proposal to release bills at least 48 hours before a vote.
State Reps. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and John Barrett III, D-North Adams, previously have told The Eagle that they do not feel a lack of transparency in the House exists. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, did not immediately respond to an inquiry Wednesday.
Representatives who spoke in opposition to a 48-hour requirement Wednesday said that doing so would hurt lawmakers’ ability to pass legislation quickly, although representatives who supported the amendment said that the House could override the requirement as necessary with support from two-thirds of the chamber.
While proponents of term limits for the speakership called the measure a necessary check on power, opponents said the House should be able to elect the person who members believe is best fit for the job. The House had term limits before eliminating them in 2015, two years before then-Speaker Robert DeLeo would have been mandated to leave the powerful position.
The amendments for speaker term limits, public committee votes and the 48-hour requirement were defeated 35-125, 41-117 and 39-119, respectively.
Ahead of the vote, constituents held nearly 100 meetings with representatives and sent about 1,250 emails advocating for the amendments backed by Act on Mass, said McDonald, the group’s communications director. In all, over 4,000 people have engaged with the campaign, McDonald said.
House Speaker Ron Mariano, in a comment to the State House News Service, seemed to acknowledge that advocacy played a role in the House’s decision to publicize “no” votes in committee. Mariano, of Quincy, said the change “answers the issue of transparency that we’re being hammered about.”
Publicizing committee votes widely was supported in 16 districts that faced a nonbinding ballot question in November. All 16 districts approved the question, and the closest vote came in the 19th Suffolk District, where 83 percent voted in favor.
Many advocates cite climate change legislation as a priority that has suffered from a perceived lack of transparency in committees, where membership is determined by the speaker. While a bill to shift Massachusetts to 100 percent renewable energy was co-sponsored by 83 of the 160 House members during the 2019-2020 session, that bill “died in committee,” meaning that it did not make it to the floor for a vote.
To “sharply increase transparency” was one of six recommendations made in a January report from Brown University researchers, “Who’s Delaying Climate Action in Massachusetts? Twelve Findings.” Of the 245 climate bills proposed from 2013 to 2018, only 43 advanced out of committee for the entire House membership to vote on the legislation, the report found. The other 202 bills died in committee.
“Nearly every committee that determined those outcomes voted in secret, leaving little opportunity for the public to hold legislators accountable for voting against climate action,” Galen Hall and Trevor Culhane said in the report.
It is the impact that rules can have on legislation, organizers say, that makes it important for them to continue advocating for rules changes.
“It’s an unexpected reason, but it’s why a lot of things haven’t passed,” McDonald said. “It’s clear that this needs to be the beginning of a lot more organizing and not the conclusion.”