Sad state of affairs on Beacon Hill

Lopsided Democrat majorities concentrate power at the top

THE MASSACHUSETTS Legislature is broken.

It’s not as bad as Tennessee or Montana, where Republican supermajorities have tried to expel or silence Democratic dissenters. Or Oregon, where Republicans simply walk out to prevent the Democratic majority from conducting business.

But remember that $56.2 billion budget, including 1,566 amendments, unanimously approved by the Massachusetts House in three days last month? Unless you are a lobbyist or political junkie the answer would be a resounding no.

That’s because there was virtually no public debate as lawmakers worked in the closed-to-the-public meeting rooms adjacent to the House chamber where amendments were consolidated and voted upon in large tranches. And a similar scene played out in the Senate this week as that branch debated its budget.

The Democratic supermajorities in the Massachusetts House and Senate exercise power just as effectively, if less offensively, than those Republican legislatures. And they’ve been doing it longer. The last time party control of either branch changed was at the start of 1955.

Today, there are 25 Republicans in the 160-member House and just three in the 40-member Senate. The last time Republicans had enough votes to block a gubernatorial veto was 1991, when 16 Republican senators sat in the chamber – and Republican William Weld was in the corner office.

That lopsided control has allowed House speakers and Senate presidents to hold a tight grip on their respective chambers. They do it by rewarding supporters with choice committee assignments that come with enhanced pay.

And by relegating dissenters to the hinterlands where they are rarely heard from again. The exception? Former state Rep. Edward Markey – who parlayed his opposition to then Speaker Thomas McGee, who ordered his desk put out into a State House hallway in 1976, to a career in Washington with the campaign slogan “the bosses may tell me where to sit but no one can tell me where to stand.”

Successive leaders have simply just tightened their grips, often to an extreme. Speakers Tom Finneran, Charles Flaherty and Sal DiMasi found themselves breaking laws instead of making them. Ironically George Keverian, the one speaker who didn’t rule with an iron fist, is remembered by many as failing to exercise the leadership needed to get the state through a fiscal crisis.

On the Senate side, much has been written about the iron grip of William Bulger, or the inability of the more bottom-up leader Stan Rosenberg to control his then-husband’s interference with government business.

Today, Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka follow what has become standard practice for most legislative leaders – withholding measures from the floor until they are assured they have the votes for passage. Passage is often on voice votes without debate.

That has made rank-and-file lawmakers willing to challenge leadership a virtually extinct species. Look no further than State Auditor Diana DiZoglio, who tried to shake up both the House and Senate but ultimately followed the Markey model to higher office where she is still focused on shaking up the Great and General Court.

How successful she will be is an open question.

DiZoglio says her charge includes auditing the House and Senate, relying on a 100-year-old review. Mariano and Spilka beg to differ, citing the state Constitution that does not specifically include the General Court as subject to review.

Lawmakers have offered her considerable fodder, where committees often operate in opacity, even rejecting calls to list which members oppose moving bills along for consideration.

DiZoglio’s predecessor Suzanne Bump, herself a former lawmaker, initially sought to oversee the Legislature before deciding her office has no authority to do so. It’s a judgment that will likely be left for the Supreme Judicial Court.

But Spilka has seemingly availed herself of a legislative prerogative – shortchanging the auditor’s office in the budget process, although a Senate Ways and Means spokesman rejects the claim. The House chose a different route and the end result will not be known until lawmakers pass and Gov. Maura Healey signs a budget later this summer.

But it’s not all sweetness and light, even among Democrats. The House and Senate chairs of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy are feuding over rules and scheduling separate hearings in a power play over which branch is dominant.

So what’s the answer, if any? Journalists have long been the strongest watchdog over the Legislature, but the ranks of the State House press corps have shrunk dramatically over the years, particularly among regional outlets that used to staff Beacon Hill with reporters focused on local delegations.

Groups like the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, and the Center for State Policy Analysis try to fill the void, largely on tax and spending questions. But as the closed-to-the-public nature of the amendment vetting process shows, they face challenges too.

What can the public do? Budget debates in legislative election years are usually held after the deadline for potential challengers to throw their hats into the ring. And sitting lawmakers often have considerable stockpiles of cash to ward off potential opponents.

Legislative proceedings once aired on a public television station are now livestreamed. And anyone willing and able to find them will discover they can be incomprehensible if you don’t know the rules and the jargon.

Perhaps we need to recognize that supermajorities, regardless of party, can be as toxic to our political culture as narrow majorities that spin their wheels.

Meet the Author
That requires paying attention and most of all voting. Ultimately the power rests with a public that holds elected officials accountable.

Jerry Berger is a former Massachusetts State House reporter who now directs the Statehouse Reporting Program at Boston University, which covers state government for regional news outlets.