THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE is pushing off its biennial debate on rules for six months, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to delay the rules debate also comes as advocates are urging lawmakers to adopt more transparent procedures.
“The pandemic is not over and the challenges it presents will not wait patiently for the Legislature to complete its typical housekeeping functions at the start of session,” Speaker Ron Mariano said in an email to House members. “Therefore, the House will act to extend its temporary emergency rules until July.”
Mariano said the House Rules Committee will use the time to do a “thorough review” of the rules and proposals, and in particular to look at how advocates engage with House members.
Typically, adopting new rules is one of the first actions of the Legislature during a new session. The current two-year session started January 6. Lawmakers already ignored that convention on Thursday by taking up and passing a climate change bill, which they passed at the end of last session but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed.
Wednesday evening, Mariano told members that he plans to keep the temporary rules the House passed last year during the COVID-19 pandemic in place until July. Mariano said those rules have successfully allowed the body to function.
The rules the House adopted Thursday included minor changes, most notably a new rule requiring the House clerk to post roll call votes on the legislative website as soon as a vote is tallied and announced by the speaker.
Mariano also introduced, and the House passed, an order requiring the House Rules Committee, which is led by Canton Democrat William Galvin, to review existing rules and proposed changes. The order tasks the committee with studying the rules “to ensure efficiency and transparency in the legislative process and in the administration of the House of Representatives,” including policies related to scheduling, consideration of legislation, and both registered lobbyists and unregistered advocates and coalitions.
The report will be due July 1, and the emergency rules will remain in place until July 15 or until the House adopts an order declaring the state of emergency in the House has ended. The rules and the order passed on voice votes without debate.
In his email to members, Mariano said he has heard concerns over the past few sessions “about a significant increase and shift in how unregistered, or vaguely-affiliated, advocates and coalitions engage with House Members and staff.” “Presently, the parameters for how to work with these opaque coalitions are ill-defined and can create a lack of clarity,” Mariano wrote. “Therefore, I am asking the Rules Committee to develop a set of best practices for engaging with these groups. Members and staff should be readily aware of who they are meeting with, which external groups comprise a coalition, and how those groups are funded.”
Today, paid lobbyists must register with Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin’s office. But there are organized groups that rely more on volunteers or do not meet the definition of a lobbyist.
Some lawmakers say they think it simply makes sense to continue operating the same way throughout the pandemic. “We’re in a pandemic, so continuing the emergency rules that were created to deal with the pandemic make sense,” said Rep. Jay Livingstone, a Boston Democrat. Livingstone said he thinks Mariano, as a new speaker, is taking a “thoughtful approach” by providing a timeline during which he can dive into the rules.
But the move also comes after Act on Mass, a progressive group that is calling for greater government accountability, had been publicly pressuring lawmakers to create more transparent procedures. Act on Mass asked for all committee votes to be publicized on the legislative website, for members to be given 72 hours to review bills before voting, and for a reduction in the number of members needed to request a roll call.
“I have to wonder if the decision to delay it wasn’t because the speaker was worried our proposed amendments would pass if they were voted on this quickly,” said Matt Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass.
Both House members and members of Act on Mass say Mariano’s comments about outside organizations seem directed at Act on Mass. The organization is registered with the Secretary of the Commonwealth as a nonprofit 501c4 social welfare organization. It does not disclose its donors. Miller says it is funded by labor unions and small donations. Behind the scenes, some lawmakers suggest that an organization focused on bringing transparency to the State House should be more transparent about its donors.
Miller said the group has a tiny budget, and until several months ago it was entirely volunteer run. Erika Uyterhoeven had been its president, but the newly-elected Somerville state representative has said she no longer has a decision-making role with the group.
Act on Mass organizer Ella McDonald said by focusing on Act on Mass, Mariano is “shifting blame away from what’s really important.” “What’s important is the lack of transparency in the State House,” McDonald said.
The group also recently came under scrutiny after an individual helping Act on Mass, who had also volunteered for US Sen. Ed Markey, used a campaign scheduling tool on Markey’s website to advertise an Act on Mass phonebank. Although the listing said the event was unaffiliated with Markey’s campaign, it bore Markey’s name.
Markey spokesperson Giselle Barry said, “Sen. Markey did not authorize the use of his name nor the Markey campaign logo to weigh in on the internal operations of the Massachusetts state Legislature. He has not been, nor will be, involved in the discussion around the rules of debate in the Massachusetts State House.”
Another critic of Mariano’s move comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the conservative-leaning Mass Fiscal Alliance, which has also called for greater State House transparency and has also come under criticism for refusing to reveal its donors, called delaying the rules debate “a nonstarter.”
“Today’s opaque and vague reference he’s making should be met with skepticism,” Craney said. Craney worried that Mariano’s examination of outside groups will be an “attempt to put walls up” between House members and constituents. “It’s an attempt to consolidate more power and make it harder for the public to communicate and advocate with their elected officials,” Craney said.