Group changing the way lawmakers are graded

Roll calls no longer the only measuring stick

THE ENVIRONMENTAL LEAGUE of Massachusetts is putting out a legislative scorecard that attempts to more accurately reflect the way votes are – or, increasingly, are not – actually taken on Beacon Hill.

Most scorecards issued by special interest groups attempt to grade lawmakers based on how often they vote in favor of bills the group supports. The Environmental League’s scorecard follows the same approach but with a slight twist. Because roll call votes are becoming increasingly scarce on Beacon Hill and typically taken after controversial issues are resolved, the Environmental League is also scoring lawmakers on whether they have filed a bill or amendment the group either supports or opposes.

“We’re really trying to send a message here that we can’t just give credit for votes,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League, a nonprofit that advocates for strong environmental laws and regulations.

A 2012 report in CommonWealth found the amount of time lawmakers spend in session on Beacon Hill has been cut in half since the mid-1980s, and the number of roll calls has fallen by 70 percent in the House and 50 percent in the Senate. Many votes on bills and amendments are now taken on voice votes where the positions of individual lawmakers are not recorded.

“There aren’t enough roll call votes and the roll call votes that do take place only come along after the disputes are resolved,” Bachrach said.

The Environmental League’s initial scorecard for the 2013-14 legislative session lists someone who votes with the group on every bill important to the organization receiving a 95 percent score. Only those who go further and actually file a bill or amendment favored by the group can receive a 100 percent score.

Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton, for example, received a 100 percent score because she voted in line with the Environmental League on six roll calls and also took one “positive leadership action,” such as filing a bill or amendment favored by the organization. Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, took all of the same votes as Balser but received a 95 percent score because he didn’t take any positive leadership actions, according to the Environmental League’s scorecard.

Over in the Senate, Sen. James Eldridge of Acton received a score of 100 percent because he voted in line with the Environmental League 10 times and also took seven positive leadership actions. Indeed, the Environmental League’s scorecard said Eldridge could have received a score greater than 100 percent because of all of his positive leadership actions.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

By contrast, Rep. Karen Spilka of Ashland received an 86 percent score  because she voted in line with the Environmental League nine out of 10 times and took no positive leadership actions.

Bachrach, a former state senator himself, said future scorecards will detract points for what the organization views as negative actions.  He said the goal is to more accurately reflect the legislative records of lawmakers and he hopes other organizations will adopt a similar approach.