Beacon Hill’s secretive committee voting process
A confusing hodgepodge of policies guide release of vote tallies
IT TOOK A couple days of calling, but the House Ways and Means Committee eventually disclosed how committee members voted last week on a major transportation bill containing hefty tax and fee increases. The information, however, had some holes in it.
According to committee spokesman Blake Webber, the vote was 22 in favor, one against, and eight reserving their rights, or abstaining from taking a position. Webber refused to say how individual members voted other than Republican Rep. Todd Smola of Warren, who was the lone no vote. He said the committee’s policy is not to release how individual members voted, other than those who vote no.
The Ways and Means policy illustrates how difficult it can be on Beacon Hill to find the answer to the seemingly straightforward question of how a member voted on a bill in committee. The search for that information may be simple or it may be impossible, depending on the whim of individual committee chairs. There is a patchwork of different policies developed by committee chairs with no guarantee that the public can find out how a given state rep or senator voted on a particular piece of legislation.
“What happens in the Legislature, particularly in committees, is really very much a black box, and I think that’s not in the best interest of voters or in the best interests of advocates,” said Mary Ann Ashton, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.
Under the rules that were ultimately agreed to, votes made by roll during a committee meeting must be kept in committee offices and made available for public inspection during business hours. But lawmakers have interpreted that rule to not apply to votes conducted by email, which is how most votes are taken.
In Senate-only committees, votes are posted online. For example, the Senate Ways and Means Committee posted on the bill’s web page how each member voted on a recent controversial bill to allow the use of automated traffic cameras. For House-only committees, the rules say a committee vote will be recorded and made public only if a committee member requests it at a meeting.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the House’s opposition to making all committee votes public.
Most substantive policy issues in the Legislature are dealt with by joint committees of both House and Senate members. CommonWealth called the House and Senate co-chairs of 15 joint policy committees and requested vote counts for a bill that was recently reported out of that committee, either favorably or unfavorably. Staff in most – but not all – offices provided the overall vote tallies, some after multiple phone calls. Some revealed how each member voted, others would only release some or none of that information.
The Election Laws Committee was the one committee that refused to provide any information on how members voted, on a bill that would let residents vote early in municipal elections. The bill was sent to study, effectively killing it, but no information was provided on the vote total or how individual members voted.
MaryRose Mazzola, chief of staff to Senate chair Barry Finegold of Andover, said Finegold and House chair John Lawn of Watertown agreed not to make individual votes public unless members are informed in advance. As a result, she said she could not reveal the vote total for the early voting bill. “Individuals don’t expect them to be made public,” Mazzola said.
Asked about the policy, Lawn said the committee members decided to keep their committee votes private, but anyone who is interested can always ask individual members how they voted. “Each individual committee member can make their vote public as they wish,” Lawn said. “You can ask anybody for their vote.”
In the Public Health Committee, Senate chair Jo Comerford’s office referred questions about votes to House chair John Mahoney’s office. Mahoney’s staff director said the usual practice of the committee is not to release information about individual votes. But, he said, if a vote is unanimous, the committee will generally provide it. Asked about a favorable recommendation on a bill restricting the use of flame retardants, he said 14 committee members voted for it and two members did not vote. He declined to name those two members.
Asked about a favorable vote on a consumer rights bill, a staffer for Paul Feeney of Foxborough, the Senate chair of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, referred questions to House chair Tackey Chan of Quincy. The aide to Feeney said the committee staff operate under the House chair and keep the committee’s records.
Chan’s staff provided the vote total of 15-0 and gave the names of the two members who abstained from taking a position.
At the Transportation and Judiciary committees, Senate staff also deferred to the House chair, who provided vote totals and the names of members who dissented from the majority vote.
But at the Education and Housing committees, the Senate chairs did not defer to their House counterparts. They provided the vote totals and a breakdown by individual members.
Jonathan Cohn, head of the issues committee for the liberal organizing group Progressive Massachusetts, voiced dismay at the lack of transparency and said he has also had mixed experiences – able to get vote totals from some committees, but not from others.
“The problem with the system as it exists is that legislators are able to kill bills giving everyone clean hands afterwards,” Cohn said. “It’s people’s jobs to take votes. They should be willing to defend those votes to their constituents.”
According to Cohn’s research, 26 states make committee votes public on a legislative website.
A legislative commission was created by a 2016 public records law to examine ways to make the legislative process more transparent. The senators who sat on that commission released recommendations in December 2018, and they included posting publicly on the legislative website any vote made by a committee, whether via email or during a meeting. But the House members of the committee did not sign on to those recommendations.
Senate commission chair Walter Timilty of Milton said senators felt that what they do “is the people’s business.” “We all have this intent to do great things for the people of the Commonwealth and we work for the people of the Commonwealth. To me, it’s a natural correlation that what we do here be out in the open,” he said.
The House commission chair was Rep. Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg, who has since left the Legislature. Benson declined to talk about the commission’s conclusion, but defended the current policy as a means of giving authority to committee chairs. Benson said people often talk about power being too centralized in legislative leadership, and letting committees negotiate their own rules is a way to distribute that power.
“I think it’s really important to keep power decentralized and out among the members and the committees,” Benson said, adding that most committees do make vote totals public, upon request.
Feeney, a commission member, said he thinks lawmakers should be as transparent as possible, and committee votes should be made public. But, he said, committees have autonomy and it is not always easy to negotiate rules between the two chairs and the members.
“The fallback in the Legislature for a long time is you just continue to do what you’ve been doing, which is if people call and ask for votes, you take it on case by case basis,” Feeney said. He said it will take “some political will” to develop a standard system where all committee votes are made public.A group of open government advocates submitted testimony to the public records commission urging lawmakers to publicize all votes. Deirdre Cummings, legislative director of MASSPIRG, a consumer group that signed onto the testimony, said lawmakers are elected to make decisions on public policy, and the public has an interest in seeing how their officials vote throughout the legislative process.
“The lawmakers are elected by the public to debate and support or oppose policies before them, and the only way that the public can evaluate how effective they are at their jobs and the issues they care about is if we have access to information like votes on policies,” Cummings said.