Democratic platform demands more legislative transparency

Party activists call out secrecy of Democratic leaders on Beacon HIll

IN A SIGN of one-party dominance on Beacon Hill, it’s not just Republicans complaining about the Democrats who control the state Legislature in Massachusetts – it’s other Democrats.

The Massachusetts Democratic State Committee on Saturday voted to include a line in its platform urging the Democratic-led Legislature to be more transparent.

The platform says, in a section on ethics and transparency, that Democrats will fight for the following principle: “All Committee votes in the Legislature to be made public by providing a list of those legislators voting yes and those legislators voting no.”

The section was included through an amendment sponsored by Ray Gottwald, who leads the Harwich Democratic Town Committee and previously worked in Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office. Gottwald referred questions to Democratic state senator and candidate for auditor Diana DiZoglio.

DiZoglio, in a speech at the virtual platform convention, criticized the centralization of power in the Legislature. “Massachusetts, as progressive as we are, has been ranked by good government groups as the least transparent in the nation,” DiZoglio said, according to her prepared remarks. “I know you all agree that is unacceptable and we as Democrats need to push our Democratic-controlled Legislature to step it up and adopt these measures.

In an interview, DiZoglio said she has long pushed proposals in the Legislature to open up committee votes and also give lawmakers more time to read bills. She described it as a matter of diversity, equity, and inclusion to have more people know what is going on in the Legislature and be able to participate.

Beacon Hill Democrats have long faced criticism for ignoring the Democratic Party platform, which has become more of an ideological stance voted on by Democratic activists than a practical agenda adopted by Beacon Hill power brokers. “There’s little connection between what the party says it stands for and what actually gets done,” Bob Massie said during his unsuccessful run for party chair last year.

DiZoglio believes legislators should care what the platform says. “We are all part of the Democratic Party here in Massachusetts,” she said.

Former state representative Kathy Teahan, a Whitman Democrat who served the House from 1997 to 2007, is self-publishing a memoir that calls for more legislative transparency. Under former House speakers Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi, Teahan said, committee votes were based on what leadership wanted, and it was rare to have any real debate or recorded opposition to a committee vote. “It was the way things were done for such a long time,” Teahan said, noting that there was little attention paid to the process of committee votes until it started to bother some progressive activists.

The issue of whether to make all committee votes public was a hot topic during the House rules debate last January, and again when representatives voted on the rules in July, as the progressive group Act on Mass urged House Speaker Ron Mariano to make all committee votes public. Previously, committee votes were generally made public upon request, but not always, and sometimes only members who voted a certain way were named.

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The Senate has generally supported making the votes fully public. Under pressure, the House adopted some changes this year. For the first time, an aggregate tally of committee votes is now readily available on the Legislature’s webpage, along with the names of members voting in the negative. But if members abstain from a vote, it is not clear from that information who abstained versus supported a committee recommendation.

Rules governing joint committees remain in a conference committee and still have not been voted on, after a House and Senate disagreement. Those committees are still operating under joint rules, which say records of roll call votes must be publicly available in committee offices but are silent on online access or votes taken not by a roll call.

Asked about the Democratic platform broadly, Mariano on Monday said that through the House rules “we have opened up our process.” He also said the rules remain “a work in progress,” and there may be other things to address.