Don’t expect change for the better under Mariano

For frustrated progressives, speaker-in-waiting likely to deliver more of the same

ALL SIGNS POINT to House Majority Leader Ron Mariano being elected the next speaker of the Massachusetts House.

What does a Mariano speakership mean for a progressive policy agenda in Massachusetts? As Reps. Denise Provost and Jonathan Hecht remind us, he shares the same top-down leadership style as Speaker Bob DeLeo, with an even more conservative ideology.

If we want to get a sense of what a Mariano speakership will be like, it’s useful to look at the process and output of the working groups and task forces he has led. And that doesn’t inspire confidence.

Take, for instance, the working group created last session in response to the Trump administration. In March 2017, Speaker DeLeo announced that House Democrats were creating a working group to guide responses to “unprecedented actions” of the Trump administration, with a focus on economic stability, health care, higher education, and the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Mariano and Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Haddad were put in charge. At the time, Haddad noted that public hearings “could very well be necessary.” Since the working group was never formally endowed with committee status, it is difficult to track how many such hearings occurred and how much outreach was done in advance — a testament to the general lack of transparency in the House.

But that’s process. What about output?

At the time, Mariano acknowledged that “the immigration issue is foremost in members’ minds,” before arguing that “what we can do is extremely limited.” Although Massachusetts cannot stop deportations, that is no justification for inaction. We could have reduced our complicity by terminating the 287(g) agreements that deputize state and local law enforcement to ICE; Massachusetts is the only state in New England to have such agreements. The Safe Communities Act would have done just that, along with other steps to disentangle state and local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. Such steps would have strengthened the functioning of justice and made clear that Massachusetts welcomes and respects our immigrant communities.

The House got close to taking action in May 2017, with a bill to prevent state money from being used for 287(g) agreements. Instead, that bill got scuttled, and all the House did was vote for a messaging bill making clear that the House opposed Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s desire to use prison labor to build Trump’s wall (sidestepping the broader ethical issues around prison labor whenever and wherever it is used). Although the Senate voted on a narrowed version of the Safe Communities Act in the budget the following year, the House succeeded at blocking it in conference committee.

On health care, the House passed the ACCESS bill, guaranteeing health care coverage for birth control, but did little to address the systemic problems in our health care system. The hallmark of the House’s health care bill last session was a one-time assessment on insurers and large hospitals to fund community hospitals for three years. That’s not a long time.

On higher education, the House continued its trajectory of underinvestment. In FY 2019, public higher education investment was more than 10 percent less in real terms than what it was in 2001, meaning higher tuition fees and greater student debt.

When it comes to addressing the pandemic, it is unclear whether this working group still exists, but Mariano was charged with presiding over the Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee, which he co-chairs with Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner. This group was tasked with identifying legislative priorities related to economic recovery in order “to mitigate economic hardship, minimize unemployment and job loss, and stabilize small business ownership.”

This task force did, in fact, have well-documented public hearings—one on workforce training, one on health care, and one on revenue and workplace protections. But that doesn’t mean it’s been much more productive.

Other than the recent telemedicine bill, it’s hard to point to new legislation emerging from or promoted by the committee.

The committee, for example, could have championed emergency paid sick time. The best advice during the pandemic is to stay home, and if we want workers to be able to stay home when they get sick, they need to know that they won’t be at risk for losing their job. However, the House has refused to pass legislation to make that possible, despite the looming expiration of protections at the federal level.

Mariano and other members of the committee likely expressed concerns about cost. But Massachusetts remains a wealthy state. Indeed, the Commonwealth’s 20 billionaires saw an increase in wealth of $17.2 billion in the first seven months of the pandemic. Rather than raising revenue to fund considerable expansions of social programs and worker protections made necessary by COVID, the House punted on the issue of revenue, relying on level-funding, federal aid, and a drawdown of the rainy day fund to fill revenue holes. Using half of the rainy day fund is not a sustainable strategy, nor is refusing to fully fund promises made in the Student Opportunity Act, the landmark education bill from last year.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
So what does this all mean? Many activists have treated the speakership of DeLeo as the main obstacle to change in the House, but the problems are far more systemic. Mariano’s quick consolidation of the votes was a testament to the weakness of progressive power in the chamber. If we want to see a progressive speaker in the Massachusetts House, then we need to be doing more to embolden the progressive representatives and electing far more of them.

Jonathan Cohn is chair of the issues committee for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.