House crushes transparency rules amendment

Only 8 Democrats join Republicans in backing measure


HOUSE LAWMAKERS spent over an hour locked in a tense debate Wednesday afternoon on an unsuccessful transparency amendment to the Legislature’s 2021-2022 joint rules before ultimately adopting a rules package to govern interactions between the two branches that strips a few elements of the Senate’s proposed reforms.

The House approved a rules package on a 128-31 vote that would keep a notice requirement for committee hearings at 72 hours, rather than the one week proposed by the Senate; make public only the names of committee members who vote against favorably reporting a bill, instead of providing a complete accounting of how all members vote, as the Senate version would; and remove Senate language which would have mandated that committees share copies of public testimony when asked by members of the public.

Most of the debate Wednesday centered on an amendment  that would have made details of all committee votes public, mandated a one-week notice for committee hearings, and made public testimony on bills available to the public upon request. The House rejected the amendment on a 36-122 vote with nearly all Republicans and eight Democrats voting in favor.

Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, the amendment’s lead sponsor, argued that it promoted transparency and accountability within the House. The Somerville Democrat said she wanted to “caution” her colleagues that transparency would not “thwart progressive legislation.”

“Underlying that [argument] is saying that we have to do our work behind closed doors and I don’t believe that is the case. And I believe that that is an unfortunate and sometimes elitist argument to say that we cannot show our votes to our constituents and to our voters,” she said during a floor speech. “We do not have a strong democracy by voting behind closed doors, or being afraid of our voters for voting us out of office.”

Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake shot back at Uyterhoeven, saying she would “try not to be insulted” by her remarks and “not take what should be a policy argument that somehow turned into an attack on members of this body personally.”

“They are not elitist arguments. They are shared experiences from experienced and yes, effective legislators,” Peake said. “These are the arguments of people who come here every day, to do their best, to work their hardest, who have years of experience, who have rolled up their sleeves, and actually gotten something done.”

Peake and Rep. Marjorie Decker argued that committee votes to advance bills in the legislative process are different from floor votes to pass or enact a bill.

Part of Uyterhoeven’s amendment would have required committees to release any public testimony that “is readily capable of being reproduced” upon request. The amendment allowed committees to redact sensitive personal information.

Opponents to the amendment argued that flexibility is key to managing a committee as well as negotiating potentially controversial legislation. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said committee staff would face an increased burden if they had to post thousands of pages of public testimony.

She said offices do not have “technical capacity to do that,” adding, “I’ve never known a chair to keep something secret when the public asks for it.”

Peake agreed.

“The burden to staff of posting every bit of testimony on the website is expensive, burdensome, but most importantly, unnecessary,” she said. “We need to allow the chairmen to continue to have flexibility for what public testimony they release and what … they will not release and redacting names isn’t going to be good enough.”

Uyterhoeven’s amendment closely mirrored language included in the Senate’s version of the joint rules — requiring committees to share public testimony upon request and allowing them to redact sensitive information.

The amendment would have ensured that testimony is available upon request, the Somerville Democrat said, while leaving committees with “the discretion and ability to protect constituents’ testimonies in the event that it may harm their health, wellness, or safety.”

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, voted against the amendment and said he received backlash when his committee posted testimony online about the policing reform bill last session after his panel opened a public comment period on the topic rather than holding a public hearing.

“Back in July, people were getting very angry with us that we were posting their testimony. They didn’t realize it was going to be public,” he said after the vote on the amendment. “It was kind of a lesson in terms of some of the trappings that you can get into when you put that much amount of public testimony out there.”

Act on Mass, an advocacy organization which has been pushing for changes including those in Uyterhoeven’s amendment, said the rejection vote “came as a disappointment.” Uyterhoeven is a co-founder of Act on Mass.

“It’s shocking that many of the arguments against the amendment blamed constituents for our lack of understanding of how the State House functions when that’s precisely what we are asking for: to stop being shut out of the legislative process,” Act on Mass campaign manager Ryan Daulton wrote in a statement. “This vote was a blatant signal that representatives care more about power than their constituents.”

Mariano, in turn, appears to be seeking more transparency on the way that groups like Act on Mass operate on Beacon Hill. The House has pushed off debate of the House Rules — normally done in tandem with the Joint Rules — until as late as July while a special study looks into how grassroots and advocacy groups interact with lawmakers.

Wednesday’s session was the first rules debate with Mariano in the speaker’s chair, and the first session of the new legislative season where representatives substantively debated and sorted through amendments to a bill.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative-leaning government watchdog group, said it was the same old “tactics.”

“[Mariano] may be new to the role of [s]peaker, but is employing old tactics to keep the status quo in place and prevent debate or scrutiny in the House,” spokesman Paul Diego Craney wrote. “…Rank and file lawmakers need to decide what side of history they want to be on, the side of transparency or at best, Mariano’s pawn.”

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Chris Van Buskirk

Guest Contributor, State House News Service
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Sam Doran

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Debate ran around three hours Wednesday, including the hour spent deliberating on Uyterhoeven’s amendment.

The Senate now decides how to handle the House’s changes — whether to accept them, offer further amendments, or initiate a conference process to work out a compromise, mostly likely in private negotiations.