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What is our State House afraid of?
Why do Massachusetts representatives and senators continue to do public business behind closed doors?
They are members of the only State House in the United States to do so.
As a longtime advocate for open government, I offer a plaintive but determined question: Why?
Instead of pawing through the maw of history to learn why this state of affairs came to be in "blue" Massachusetts, let's start with the present and try to move toward a more open future.
Two news articles by The Globe's Emma Platoff reported over three months lay out some facts.
Most recently, consider "Months later, Beacon Hill has no agreement on contested transparency rules."Here are its key points:
- Massachusetts lawmakers have no agreement about transparency protocols for their own work six months into their legislative session after saying they would seek such rules.
- With such guidelines, the public does not know who opposes bills or why they were not put to a formal vote and cannot hold their representatives accountable.
- Some basic background: Every term, chambers must agree to internal procedures governing the legislative process. A discussion this year included a push to share more information with the public about who supported which pieces of legislation at each stage, with the goal of shedding some light on why some measures never make it into law.
- The Senate favored a more transparent approach, while the House wanted to mostly maintain a status quo, which makes it difficult for outsiders to track the process. On March 22, three lawmakers from each chamber were assigned to negotiate the rules. Months later, there is no resolution. None of the six members of the conference committee responded to questions from The Boston Globe about their work.
- The lawmakers held one public hearing, on March 29. After about one minute, they opted to keep their discussions behind closed doors. The committee has had no public meetings since.
- House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka did not respond to Globe inquiries about the pace of the committee’s progress.
- A House committee on internal rules issued a report last week recommending that the chamber maintain some pandemic protocols, including live-streaming meetings of the Legislature and allowing remote access to hearings on bills. But on other questions of transparency, it suggested minimal increases to public access. The report recommended publishing only the names of the lawmakers who vote against bills during the committee process, not those who vote for them or abstain.
- Its authors, Democratic Representatives Sarah Peake of Provincetown and William Galvin of Canton, did not respond to Globe requests for comment. Mariano said the study would help the House incorporate the lessons of the pandemic to improve the legislative process.
- A 2020 ballot question in 16 House districts found overwhelming support for increasing transparency.
YourArlington has asked its legislative delegation -- Rep. Sean Garballey, Rep. Dave Rogers and Sen. Cindy Friedman -- to comment on this question: What steps should be taken to move this process forward, toward more public transparency, not less?
The responses of all will be published in full.
Globe, April 7, 2021: Massachusetts lawmakers are debating their transparency procedures — behind closed doors
This viewpoint was published Monday, July 5, 2021.
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