Let the sunshine in
Timely because one of the items Viser focuses on is the proposed corporate tax reporting law amendments offered during the House debate (for a fuller discussion of the nuts and bolts, check here, including a comment from House Emerging Technologies and Economic Development Chair Dan Bosley and a report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.)
The 2,300-word amendment at the center of contention had no prior public discussion -- and failed to hit the radar screen of at least one conscientious House member. Bosley says the amendment was in the clerk's hands all day and no one raised questions.
But it's the broader issue -- members-only caucuses, bundling amendments behind closed doors to have them voted up or down as a package -- as well as the lack of debate, phantom voting and similar issues that is troubling.
As I said, it's not new. In my reporting days, Senate Democrats AND Republicans would occasionally meet as a "caucus of the whole," a fancy term for all of them sitting in then President William Bulger's spacious office, chatting in private and emerging with a decision.
The House would hold party caucuses (Democrats using Gardner Auditorium, Republicans in a broom closet) and then have the President or the Speaker emerge to speak to the media.
Budget amendment bundling is a long-time practice in the Senate, where reporter could see the stacks of paper in clear view in the Senate Reading Room, but could not get close to them because the room was off-limits to them.
Viser mentions the Patrick administration's denial of several requests for records, including a request from the Associated Press in February for copies of his e-mails and other electronic communications. But document requests fall into a different transparency pile than holding "debate" behind closed doors.
It's somehow appropriate that neither Speaker Sal DiMasi or Senate President Terry Murray would speak to Viser directly, preferring statements through spokesmen.
Legislatures are deliberative bodies -- and there seems to be far less deliberation. Not that all debates are good. I covered some budget debates that were longer than interminable and yielded no news. The famed House "toga" debate earlier this decade was a profile in shame.
There are people elected who simply love to hear the sounds of their own voices. But I can recall a few who actually tried to hold people accountable. Wellesley Republican Royall Switzler (leaving aside his military service record) was an amiable and persistent if loquacious gadlfy. Former Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees performed a valuable service by asking "what is this amendment about and what will it cost" as each proposal was taken up.
The public has just about had its fill of politics and government, particularly as it is practiced in Washington. We haven't descended into that sewer, thank to the civility (and meager ranks) of Massachusetts Republicans.
But the public does have a right to know about the people's business -- and that business should be conducted in the full view of those who elect (and reject) our officials.
The Globe found one citizen chastened by the experience:
And this is someone who was happy with the outcome of that vote.
During the highly contentious casino debate, for example, lawmakers spent 13 hours in committee hearings, sustaining themselves on Gatorade and crackers as they listened to anyone who wanted to testify. But when it came time for deliberations among committee members, there were none. To cast votes, most e-mailed and phoned them in, some not even bothering to show up at the State House.
For John Leschen, a 41-year-old historic preservation contractor from Plympton, this was the first time he had confronted State House procedures, and he expressed disappointment. Leschen traveled several times to Beacon Hill, meeting with legislators and sitting through hours of hearings, to oppose the governor's plan to license three resort casinos. He was impressed with the amount of time legislators spent on the issue and the knowledge they had amassed, but said it was all for naught.
"It was primarily for show," said Leschen. "These things happened the next day through e-mail, a quick debate, and a couple of votes."