Area reps. explain votes on transparency rules 

  • BLAIS

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Mindy Domb FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Daniel Carey FILE PHOTO

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2021 9:35:50 PM

Hampshire County’s state representatives are facing criticism from some constituents for voting against proposed new rules that advocates say would have increased transparency and accountability in the state Legislature. The delegation, however, insists they accomplished just that last week with the passage of a final rules package for the coming legislative session.

The rules package, approved last Wednesday by a 129-29 vote, takes effect in October for the legislative session that lasts for two years. At issue were three amendments to the rules that were overwhelmingly defeated by a large majority of House members, including all of the Hampshire County delegation.

The amendments would have reinstated term limits for the speaker of the House; required that all House committee members’ votes be made public; and required at least 48 hours to review legislation before a vote.

State Reps. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland,  voted against the three amendments, but all said other changes to the House rules bring more accessibility and transparency about the legislative process to western Massachusetts constituents.

Sabadosa contends that the House rules changes are more significant and create greater transparency than the failed amendments would have. The changes to the rules include continued hybrid access — online and in person — to hearings, broadcasting informal sessions, and a required report for bills to show if and how a bill was changed in committee.

Changes to the House rules will allow virtual participation in hearing and committee meetings, “allowing the region to be heard even louder,” Domb said. Recordings of informal and formal sessions will also be publicly available following sessions.

“How many times has a person from western Mass. had to say, ‘I can’t testify at a hearing because I can’t take a day off work or school or I can’t afford to go to Boston?’ ” Domb said, noting that many from the region would find it challenging to travel to the State House to participate in a three-hour hearing.

In a move advocates described as a concession to their demands, House leadership agreed to release the names of representatives who vote “no” on legislation in committee as part of the rules for the coming legislative session, a move legislators said will give constituents more insight as to who is holding bills up in committee.

Before the new rules, only aggregate counts of “yes” or “no” votes in committees were provided publicly.

Carey said he heard from constituents who “wanted to know who was voting against bills” and “who was stopping bills from getting out of committee.” He and other legislators said the new rules will answer those questions for constituents.

“I heard clearly from constituents who want to better understand who is holding up priority pieces of legislation,” Blais said. She said she had conversations with the rules committee of the House and leadership where she emphasized the importance for constituents to know who votes legislation down in committee.

Term limits

Political activists have pushed state legislators to set an eight-year term limit for the speaker of the House for what they say is a role with tremendous influence over House membership, a role that has swirled in controversy for the past few decades after two previous speakers pleaded guilty to federal charges and one was convicted on federal corruption charges.

“It’s been suggested that membership vote for a particular speaker to receive office perks or chairmanship, or out of fear of retribution, and I will say, each and every day, my actions are guided fully by the priorities of the constituents of the 1st Franklin District,” Blais said. “I will not be beholden by anyone but those constituents.”

Domb said she voted against reinstating term limits, which were eliminated in 2015, because “that’s what elections are for.”

“When I heard the rationale behind term limits for speakers, it seemed to insinuate that term limits are to vote your conscience,” Domb said. “As if somehow our votes for speaker were tied to a whole lot of personal gain. And for me, it sounded like an insinuation of corruption.”

Domb said those insinuations are “offensive, insulting and wrong.” She said elections are essentially a performance review that happens every two years, and if the speaker of the House continues to get elected, the legislative body should not remove them from the post. State representatives do not have term limits.

Carey also noted that Massachusetts does not have term limits for legislators, and said setting a term limit for the speaker would “limit the options for who we can support.”

Amendments have support

Ella McDonald, the communications director for Act on Mass, a grassroots organization advocating for increased transparency and accountability in the State House, said the amendments that were struck down were supported by many in the state.

“We are extremely disappointed to see once again so many of our state representatives line up behind House leadership to vote down amendments that are immensely popular among their constituents,” McDonald said. “After eight months of campaigning, I can say with full confidence that representatives heard from their constituents, and we knew where they stood, and they chose to stand with the House speaker.”

McDonald said that most people see the House rules vote as a “nitty-gritty, inside thing” that most state residents do not normally concern themselves with, but she argued that the vote is “one of the most consequential votes the House will take this session.”

McDonald pointed to the powerful influence the speaker of the House wields among members. The speaker is responsible for committee assignments and extra stipends, and has the power to block bills while pushing others.

“From committee reps assignments, to who chairs what committee, to determining how many aids each rep gets, the list goes on really,” McDonald said about the speaker’s sway in the House. “It’s a really strong incentive for reps to vote how a speaker wants no matter what constituents want.”

McDonald also argued that the public deserves more answers when it comes to how committee members vote on legislation. Sabadosa, on the other hand, said committees vote primarily on a procedural basis and vet bills for constitutionality.

Bills that are popular among the electorate — such as Medicare for All — end up “dying” in committee, McDonald said, and because there is no way of knowing how committee members voted, constituents are prevented from knowing who to hold accountable.

As for the amendment to review a bill at least 48 hours before a vote, Blais said, “the final vote is one step in a very long process that involves a great deal of public participation, involvement and input in the committee process, and the rules package we adopted includes some provisions that will strengthen that citizen participation in the committee process.”

In 2019, Blais, Carey, Domb, and Sabadosa all voted in favor of a failed amendment that would have created a 72-hour review period for bills out of committee before a full vote. Currently the rule is a 24-hour window for review. Domb and Blais both said their experience after their first term changed their perspectives on why having longer than 24 hours to review a bill can be a negative factor.

Domb said extending the lengths of review can create “unintended consequences,” and it can give “opposition more time to obstruct it, peel allies from it, and derail it.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.


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