We proposed two related petition initiatives in 2023 at the last minute, so imperfectly, to see if it is possible to fix issues around the legislature, including conflicts of interest. We welcome feedback for constructive improvement here. We submitted this petition out of frustration and impatience with the legislature’s inability to pass legislation that industry opposes even when beneficial to and popular among everyone else.
The legislature has many issues, such as problems of transparency, conflicts of interest, and rules and campaigns that fail to support democratic functioning. ActonMass (.org) has built a campaign for transparency and more democratic legislative rules and, in 2021, submitted several amendments proposing to increase transparency on bills. Given the attention they’ve given these two issues, by rights they should bring forward an initiative and, if so, we will be glad to support them. FYI, these are not the only issues, but let’s start there.
Even though legislators earn about $70,000 in salary, the Speaker of the House decides the bonus pay of nearly 160 representatives. Bonus pay currently ranges from zero to $90,000 extra. With the ability to give or take away $90,000 in bonus pay, the speaker has great influence over most of the legislature.
The Senate President controls pay for nearly 40 senators, but the Speaker decides bonus pay of 160 legislators and so has greater influence.
This kind of control could be dangerous in the hands of the wrong person. Although control also depends on what the market, or the legislature, is willing to bear, the fact is that bullies often manage to con, bribe, and create the kind of toxic culture that disables opposition – hence the rise of Stalin, Hitler, etc. Speaker of the House Ron Mariano may be the nicest person, but this doesn’t matter – allowing bonus pay to be decided this way is wrong.
Leadership is also able to handpick a few people for ‘conference’ committees to rewrite bills entirely, ignoring the proposals of the committees that held public hearings (public hearings in theory, disregarding numerous absent legislators).
House leadership also calls a vote. The speaker can block or push bills at will, as well as bring bills to vote without transparency, so that legislators may be voting on bills that have never been seen except by 3 or 4 people. At the end of the year, bills are often bundled together for votes, making it difficult for any legislator to say yes or no to any one bill since the good may be bundled with the bad.
The reasoning behind bundling is that there are apparently so many bills to pass. This is a ridiculous argument because the bills are usually held for a vote until the very last minute partly to extend control over other legislators. By not allowing some bills to come to vote, for example, leadership insures that legislators are extremely nice to them and almost never complain.
We can’t let one person or a few bundle and decide on the passage of bills, nor delay passage of bills for so long. If, for some reason, some legislators just quit working after passage of their favorite bills, then their pay should be docked or they should be otherwise called on the carpet – never should the control measure or punishment be something that involves delaying legislation for the people as a whole.
The power of the speaker of the house naturally encourages corruption. State speakers of the house indicted include Speaker Salvatore DiMasi (D) in 2011 for kickbacks; Speaker Thomas Finneran in 2004 for lying about redistricting to his benefit; and Speaker Charles Flaherty (D) in 1996 for lying about taxes and lobbyist gifts.
The power of the speaker naturally means that industry simply has to persuade one person, the speaker, to listen. If you fear the concentrated power of the U.S. president in the ‘wrong’ hands, why allow the speaker, state legislative leadership or anyone so much power?
Our state legislature has two branches – House and Senate. Sending bills through committees for both the house and senate slows down legislation when, in Massachusetts, we can’t even get our budget passed on time. Would we want two branches of the town or city council as Davis Bernstein, in an article linked below, asks?
While some may say slow and steady, the legislature is stagnant on certain bills. Bills to require more recess have been in the legislature for years without action. Privacy bills might as well just never be submitted. The bills that easily move forward are, in contrast, usually bills that have some kind of financial interests as backers and lack industry opposition. The only ‘green’ bills that seem to move involve solar, wind, etc. industries, in contrast to limits on chemicals. Thankfully, our legislators still try to support local constituents, such as local farmers, to the public’s benefit.
The public, legislators, and experts can also be deceived, as Monsanto famously demonstrated by purchasing lying, unscrupulous ‘experts’ to sign onto scientific articles promoting their Roundup weedkiller as safe. Even our news media is swamped by sponsored ‘content’, ‘nonprofits’, and ‘experts’ designed to make everything look ‘green’ and good even when the opposite is true.
This problem points to how much we need independent science to advise and present to legislators and the public, instead of a public university system that often seems to cater to industry research and funds.
The only benefit of slow action is that it seems that industry has more time, money, and energy to influence legislators – industry easily pays their lawyers to write, and sometimes threaten, public agencies and legislators. Attending public hearings or reading dockets, you see the polish of presentations from paid industry lawyers. Most people, including academics and other experts, don’t have time to dedicate to public hearings and dockets.
Despite this, there are times when the public floods the legislature to speak on some bills. Public hearings are very important for they allow the public to share persona experience. There are times when bills industry loves are halted because of public opposition.
Finally, the legislature also has issues with campaign donations, elections, and with general conflicts of interest, such as having set up disclosure laws and public access in way that amounts to very little disclosure. Campaign laws in Massachusetts are unfairly set up to benefit incumbents, so much so that incumbents don’t need to gather as many signatures to run.
The above is based in part on a number of articles that have criticized the state legislature over the years, such as the following:
- Let’s Dismantle the MA House of Representatives, by David Bernstein in Boston Magazine, 3/26/2017 – details the leadership conference committee rewriting bills, as well as how bills get choked up by too many committees.
- Disappointing Tradition in House (1/3/2019) – Eagle Tribune criticizes non-secret vote for House speaker.
- Ex-Lobbyist Reveals How House Really Works (12/19/2018) – by Phillip Sego in Commonwealth Magazine
- MA House Plays Follow the Leader (2/11/2019) – by Bob Katzen in Sentinel & Enterprise, discusses how house legislators all cast same vote as house speaker’s vote, as called in, and then immediately switched their vote when the house speaker called in to switch his vote.
- Massachusetts Path from Transparency to Secrecy (10/3/2023) Bridget Beleno in Massachusetts Collegian
- It’s Time to Bring Transparency to the Legislature (2/24/2021) Jonathan Cohn in the Commonwealth Magazine
- Conflicts of interest in state government and the need for community media
- Monsanto papers at US Right to Know [anti-genetic engineering (GMO) research/news group]: https://usrtk.org/monsanto-papers/