A Member Of The

Transparency, Accountability, Credibility


An Agenda for Legislative Reform

As public interest groups, the members of the Coalition for Legislative Reform disagree--often quite vociferously--about many issues. But we also share several things in common:

We believe that if we could make our case to legislators who are free of excessive influence, our viewpoints would have a fairer hearing.

We believe the Legislative process should be open to input and scrutiny.

We believe the Legislative process should not be controlled by any group or individual.

Therefore, we have joined together to promote greater transparency, accountability, and credibility. Our effort will extend over the next legislative session, as we:

demand enforcement of existing rules;

call for the modification of a few key processes; and

monitor progress toward reform.

In 1983, the last time a major legislative reform effort was undertaken, more than 60,000 voters signed an initiative petition calling for changes on Beacon Hill. Although the courts scuttled direct implementation of those reforms, many of them were gradually incorporated into the operations of the Legislature. At the time, the Coalition for legislative Reform deplored "the inordinate concentration of power now in the hands of top leadership" and called for a legislature "in which a our state legislators have an opportunity to shape the laws of the Commonwealth."

In 1999, legislators from across the political spectrum issued a report calling for changes to "dispel the image of secretive and devious proceedings." They called for "more open and informed debate" and a solution to "problems relating to adherence to the rules." Then came the infamous "Animal House" session of April, 2000. Once again, a group of legislators called for substantive changes in the way the Legislature operates. Prompted by the outcry, the Speaker appointed a committee to recommend changes in the budget process. Their proposal, while useful, is limited in scope and impact. It would create a more orderly queue for the budget debate, but would not stem the flow of unrelated proposals, or open up the rest of the legislative process.

Other suggestions (such as changes in the selection of committee chairs and the scheduling of hearings and formal sessions) may arise in the weeks ahead. The House and Senate could appoint a joint committee (including experienced reformers) to consider broader changes to the legislative process. The Coalition will consider such proposals and their overall effect, and will append or modify this agenda.

Whatever the final shape of the reform, we reiterate our commitment to comprehensive reform that opens all of the legislative channels, rather than a selective implementation of changes to close down the few avenues now available for action. We oppose piecemeal "reform" efforts that produce the exact opposite effect by consolidating power and opening new loopholes. Additionally, our efforts will apply to differing extents to the House and Senate.

Taken as a whole, our proposal outlines a rules reform agenda that would promote greater transparency, accountability, and credibility.

Transparency

All avenues of the legislative process must be open and available -- from committees to floor votes. legislative committees should be empowered to do their jobs, and do them publicly. The legislative agenda (and the budget) should flow from work done by the appropriate committees, which should hold public hearings, debates, and votes. This process should include adequate public notice well in advance and on-line, with the text of bills and amendments made available to in advance of votes being taken. Further, bills should be acted on or moved out of the Rules, Ways & Means, Third Reading, and Steering & Policy committees within a reasonable time frame-say, 30-60 days. Requiring the clerk to put bills on the calendar a set number of days after their release from committees would make this process "automatic." Example: The paucity of bills actually brought to the floor for debate and vote.

Make roll-call votes, bills, amendments, budget documents, and schedules for an meetings and hearings available in a timely manner, and on-line. Agendas and schedules for all sessions (and committee meetings) should be available to members, the press, the public, and on-line at least 24 (if not more) hours in advance. Votes in committees, testimony, and other records from committee proceedings should be available on-line as soon as feasible. Changes to proposed legislative amendments must be germane to the original amendment, and the text of altered amendments should be made available to members, the media, and interested parties prior to voting. Advances in technology make it possible to have information available almost instantaneously to promote informed debate and voting. The Senate has put much of this information on-line, the House should follow suit. Example: Too often, legislators and advocates alike are unaware of important events and votes, and often act on incomplete information.

Present the budget by the end of March in a comprehensible format. Further, the budget process should be outlined beforehand, with a time frame and deadlines posted well in advance. That time frame, including the time the budget spends in conference committee, the Governor's office, and in the Legislature for overrides, should be known and respected. The recent ban on late-night sessions is a step in the right direction, eliminating all or most outside sections would continue progress. Finally, the budget format-beginning with the Governor's presentation should lay out information as clearly as possible so that relevant year-to-year comparisons are possible. Example: Last year, more items were passed in seven days as outside sections than were passed as laws (498 to 261).

Accountability

Ban outside sections to the budget, or severely restrict the definition. The budget is not the place to rewrite laws. Outside sections have distorted the legislative process because they have become one of the few avenues for action. Thls further undermines committees and the openness of a regular legislative process, and further diminishes opportunities for public input, informed debate, and recorded votes. In addition the inclusion of items unrelated to the budget or so sweeping and controversial as to deserve fuller consideration diminishes legislative credibility. The constitutional prohibition on passing laws not germane to the budget should be upheld. Examples: From MBTA funding to changes in the public integrity laws, outside sections have become dumping grounds for all manner of non-budget specific items.

Strictly limit what is done in informal sessions. We have a full-time Legislature. If informal sessions must be held, controversial items should not be slipped through when many members are not present -- or unaware of what is under discussion. A small number of members (say, 10-20) should be able not only to call for a vote, but to recall within a reasonable time frame any item passed in informal session for full debate and recorded vote (this could be accomplished, for example, by delaying for 48 hours before sending items passed in informal session to the Senate). Examples: Changes two years ago to the campaign finance laws; last years proposed Constitutional change on school funding, both passed off the agenda in informal session.

Suspend the rules only under extraordinary circumstances. No rule change will have an impact if the rules are routinely ignored. Like outside sections and informal sessions, rules suspensions have made the extraordinary commonplace, and devalued the legislative process. Example: According to one report, between September 2 and November 10 of 1999, House rules were suspended 113 times for "non-trivial" items.

Credibility

The public integrity laws should be altered only to better serve the public, not to benefit any private interests. If the ethics, disclosure, lobbying, and other public integrity laws need changing, there should be a full review by the appropriate committees, and public input from the people, the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the appropriate state agencies, concerned public interest groups, and others, before any legislation goes forward. Example: Last year's attempt, via outside section, to open a loophole in the lobbyist disclosure law.

Laws passed by ballot initiative should have the opportunity to prove themselves before being altered substantially. Although laws passed by the initiative process may not meet approval of the Legislature, the will of the voters should be respected. Example: Numerous attempts, often via outside section, to undermine the Clean Elections Law.

The salary schedule should be respected. The salary of legislators was set by Constitutional amendment in 1998. Adding additional salary for some creates the potential for undue influence by leadership and lobbyists. The Legislature should not invent new "leadership" positions, compensation formulae or methods, and/or additional forms of recompense. Example: Last year's doubling of the stipend and the attempt to create new leadership posts, both via outside section.

The Speaker and Senate President's terms should remain limited to eight years. The present system promotes openness and allows for power to change hands regularly. Example: Rumors of an additional extension of the Speaker's term.

No proxy voting. Example: Last year's budget debate.


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