House-Senate split goes beyond rules

Rosenberg calls current rules situation an embarrassment

SENATE PRESIDENT STANLEY ROSENBERG and some of his colleagues indicated on Thursday that the Senate and House are in sharp disagreement over more than just legislative rules. The two branches of government are also headed for possible showdowns over the MBTA and the Pacheco Law.

At a meeting with reporters in his State House office, Rosenberg made clear the stakes are high in his chamber’s standoff with the House over rules governing the release of legislation from committees. But he said that dispute will not spill over into other business before the Legislature, or sour the relationship between him and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“We have not been disagreeable even though we are disagreeing,” he said.

The Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to develop a plan to pull out of joint legislative committees with the House and establish committees made up of senators only. House members enjoy a nearly 2-to-1 membership advantage on the joint committees and Rosenberg says the House has used that dominance to bottle up bills and prevent them from reaching the Senate for a vote. The Senate-only committees would allow bills to reach the Senate floor more easily, but Rosenberg stressed that there is no guarantee the Senate will pass them or that the legislation will make it to the House and be voted on there.

Rosenberg said the issue came to a head at the end of the last legislative session when senators were eager to debate legislation increasing the minimum wage and reforming the unemployment insurance system. He said the legislation was stuck in a joint House-Senate committee, so the Senate took the unusual step of invoking Rule 19, which allows it to create its own legislation outside the joint committees. The Senate approved the legislation and sent it to the House, which refused to act on it because the bill had not emerged from a joint committee. That type of situation occurs “way too often,” Rosenberg said.

“We rarely use Rule 19 because it’s such a bizarre approach and because it’s an embarrassment, frankly,” Rosenberg said. “It’s an embarrassment to the process. It’s an embarrassment to the Senate, and, frankly, it should be an embarrassment to the House.”

The Senate President said some senators who are chairs of joint committees say they get along well with their House cochairs and legislation flows in and out of the joint committees smoothly. But he said other Senate chairs report the opposite experience. Asked if he would name the committees where problems have occurred, he said: “You think I’m crazy? You think I just fell off the hay wagon?”

DeLeo, in an op-ed in the Boston Globe earlier this week, condemned the initial Senate proposal that would have allowed senators serving on a joint committee to vote on a bill originating from their branch and send it to the Senate floor. DeLeo called the proposal “ill-advised, disruptive, and … detrimental to the public interest.”

DeLeo noted that last fall voters soundly rejected an initiative petition to expand the reach of the bottle deposit law to most noncarbonated beverage containers. DeLeo said a bill that would have done the same thing failed to receive committee approval. “If committee members, whether senators or representatives, can’t convince a majority of their colleagues to support their bill, they should take a hard look at the policy they are promoting rather than blaming the process,” DeLeo wrote.

Rosenberg said on Thursday that the bottle deposit law expansion should have been voted up or down in committee, an action that would have allowed either the House or Senate to take up the issue. Instead, Rosenberg said, the bill was stuck in committee so some senators attached the legislation to the budget in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid to win passage.  “So to my way of thinking about this, there is a very good system that is no longer working properly,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said the rules problem “isn’t tied to any one person or one situation,” but then he was reminded that DeLeo, who opposes new taxes, had labeled the bottle deposit legislation a tax.

“Oh, that’s right,” Rosenberg said. “Some people think of it as a fee and other people think of it as good environmental policy.”

The rules dispute is not the only issue dividing the House and Senate. The House Ways and Means Committee this week included in its budget proposal for fiscal 2016 a measure that would exempt the MBTA from the Pacheco Law, which governs government contracting with private companies, for five years.  Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the Pacheco Law makes it difficult for an agency like the T to contract out work.

Rosenberg said he needs more information on how the Pacheco Law is working, particularly at the T. But he said the data he has seen indicate the law is working well. He said data gathered by Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, who originally sponsored the 1993 law, indicate 80 percent of all government privatization proposals are implemented.

Sen. Thomas McGee, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, who joined Rosenberg at the meeting with reporters, said he wanted to slow down the rush by the Baker administration and the House to make dramatic policy changes at the T. He said he has questions about how a Baker advisory panel reached its conclusions to fire the members of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, to raise T fares more quickly than allowed under current law, and to hold off on providing additional funding for the state’s transportation system.

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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.

“The reality is we have a system that’s been underfunded for years,” McGee said. “We have never given enough dollars to the transportation system to allow it to do what we expect it do.”