The Legislature’s ‘black box’ committees
Fate of 6 key bills in hands of 29 lawmakers
AFTER MONTHS and even years of public debate, the fate of six key pieces of legislation is now in the hands of just 29 lawmakers.
The lawmakers are charged with resolving differences between House and Senate bills dealing with the state budget, police reform, climate change, economic development, health care, and transportation bond funding.so-called conference committees on which these lawmakers serve are “black boxes” whose inner workings are unknown.
Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville, who retires in January after 14 years in the Legislature, said on the Codcast this week that many of her constituents have been asking her about progress on bills in the House-Senate conference committees. She said she has to explain that she doesn’t know
The bills are the outgrowth of enormous public debate and negotiations over the last two years. But now their final shape – or whether they even emerge for an up-or-down vote in both branches – is being decided by a handful of lawmakers working in private, out of the public eye. The six what’s going on in those committees.
Bills dealing with police reform, transportation funding, health care, and economic development went into conference committees in July. A climate change conference committee was appointed in early August, and budget conferees were named on Monday.
Ironically, the budget, which is typically the biggest and most complex bill the Legislature passes each year, is likely to emerge for a final vote first because it’s five months late. The other bills have been languishing for months in their conference committees, leading to speculation that House and Senate negotiators are having a hard time finding common ground. The final deadline for action is a little over a month away, on January 5.
Frustrated with the lack of action on police reform legislation, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi today called for opening the process up for the public to see what’s holding things up. “Of course, that’s a fantasy scenario; open, honest debate doesn’t happen anymore on Beacon Hill on an issue,” she said.
The conference committees all have three members from the House and three from the Senate. Each branch supplies two Democrats and one Republican. The Democrats tend to be key members of the House and Senate power structures, while the Republicans, because of their small numbers on Beacon Hill, have to plug the gaps as best they can.
Of the 29 lawmakers serving on the six conference committees, 19 are white men, six are white women, and there are three men and one woman of color.Eleven of the 40 senators fill the 18 Senate slots on the conference committees. Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, a Democrat and the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, serves on three, as does Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth. Sens. Cindy Friedman, a Democrat from Arlington, and Dean Tran, a Republican from Fitchburg, each serve on two.
In the 160-member House, only Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, serves on more than one conference committee. He serves on the budget and economic development committees.