BOSTON (SHNS) – Voters in about one-eighth of the House’s 160 districts will get a chance in November to tell their representatives, including the speaker himself, if they want to know how lawmakers vote on committee polls that set bills up for passage or demise.
Transparency advocacy group Act on Mass worked to put non-binding public policy questions on the ballot asking if voters want to instruct their representatives to support “changes to the applicable House of Representatives rules to make each Legislator’s vote in that body’s Legislative committees publicly available on the Legislature’s website.” The question will go before voters in 19 districts, according to a confirmation letter Attorney General Maura Healey’s office sent to Secretary of State William Galvin.
Erin Leahy, the group’s executive director, said the push is part of a “People’s House” campaign Act on Mass is running with other organizations to put more pressure on lawmakers to move their business out from behind the opaque curtain that hangs over much of Beacon Hill.
“There are reps — and our intention is for there to be reps — who want to take these votes in favor of good governance and transparency issues,” Leahy said. “Given a data point that 90 percent of their constituents voted for them to do this, instructed them to do this, that can be a really great excuse for them to do the right thing if they’re up against the speaker or House leadership or their colleagues who don’t want them to vote for this amendment. Having this in their back pocket is kind of a shield, a little bit of a defense mechanism for them to vote the right way on this issue.”
Leahy filed paperwork with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance as the chair of The People’s House Ballot Committee, which will advocate in support of the questions. The group has not yet reported any fundraising or spending, and Leahy said she expects “minimal” campaign finance activity, most of which would be in-kind donations from Act on Mass and other supportive groups.
Top House Democrats have long resisted publicizing each representative’s stance on committee polls, often taken electronically and with no public notice, that either send bills forward in the lawmaking process or stuff them into a dead end. They have instead provided only the names of lawmakers who vote in the negative alongside aggregate, anonymized totals of how many voted in the affirmative and how many withheld their vote.
The 19 districts targeted for the ballot questions this fall cover a wide range of legislative power. Several are currently represented by members of House leadership, including Speaker Ronald Mariano’s Third Norfolk District and Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake’s Fourth Barnstable District.
Six of the districts where voters will make their preferences known on publicizing legislative committee votes will also elect brand-new representatives on Nov. 8: the First Essex, Eighth Essex, Eighth Hampden, 14th Middlesex, 15th Suffolk and 19th Worcester.
“We wanted to make sure we were setting the tone for the election and trying to capitalize on the fact there might be a new rep, a freshman rep, and ensure they could hear from their constituents on this issue before getting pulled into the culture of the State House,” Leahy said.
Transparency advocates pushed similar non-binding questions in 16 House districts in 2020, all of which passed with at least 80 percent of voters in support, according to Leahy.
That did not make much of a difference this session.
When the House was crafting its joint rules for the 2021-2022 session, representatives rejected an amendment from first-term Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven — who co-founded Act on Mass before winning election — that would have publicized all committee vote details, required one week of notice ahead of committee hearings, and made all public testimony on legislation available to the public upon request.
Representatives who opposed the change said during that debate that committee votes to move bills forward in the legislative process are different from the votes in each chamber to pass bills.
Only eight Democrats — none of whom hold positions in the leadership hierarchy nor powerful and higher paying roles as committee chairs — joined most of the chamber’s Republicans in supporting Uyterhoeven’s amendment.
Three of the yes votes came from representatives of districts where a large majority of voters backed a 2020 non-binding question supporting publicized committee votes: Uyterhoeven, Rep. Steve Owens and Rep. Nika Elugardo. Most of the other representatives from those districts voted against the Uyterhoeven amendment.
“We’re going up against such an entrenched power structure, I really wouldn’t expect one round of these types of policy questions to immediately bring about a bunch of 180s from reps,” Leahy said. “There are still so many more carrots offered from House leadership to fall in line on issues than there are sticks from us on the outside and from constituents.”
House leadership’s resistance to disclosing more details of committee votes, which can in turn become campaign fodder for election opponents and voters, has drawn criticism from a range of transparency advocates and government watchdogs across the political spectrum.
Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said onlookers “don’t need a non-binding” question “to tell what common sense can already tell you.”
“All votes should be made public,” Craney said. “Speaker Mariano and Senate President (Karen) Spilka have refused to implement transparency and they remain the problem. For them, the ends justify the means. Even some of (the) newer progressive lawmakers who campaigned on these issues during their democratic primaries are abandoning their transparency pledges and they need to be held accountable, along with leadership.”
While the Senate has also drawn criticism over a perceived lack of transparency at times, including when the chamber approved a sports betting legalization bill on a voice vote that did not record each senator’s position, its own internal rules go beyond the House’s and call for “all recorded votes of each member and by the committees” to be published online.
The branches never found consensus on a final, complete package of rules to govern joint committees and a slightly modified version of the 2019-2020 session’s rules adopted on a temporary basis remain in place.
Asked why Act on Mass moved for non-binding ballot questions instead of seeking an initiative petition that would give voters a chance to change policy themselves, Leahy said the group would love to pursue the idea in the future.
“The only reason we haven’t is we would have to build up our organization and capacity for fundraising, and those cost a ton of money to run,” she said, describing the coalition behind an income surtax amendment as taking “a decade to get where they are now.”