FORMER REP. JAY KAUFMAN continued his recent lambasting of House Speaker Robert DeLeo during a panel discussion Wednesday about the lack of racial and gender diversity in Massachusetts government.
The Lexington Democrat, who spent roughly a decade as DeLeo’s Revenue Committee chairman until last year when he declined to seek re-election, said the leadership ranks of the House all share the same basic mindset.
“There is virtually no – if not absolutely no – diversity of opinion,” Kaufman said Wednesday, comparing the lack of differing viewpoints to the lack of racial diversity. “That’s a serious problem.”
Political observers have long recognized that debate is an infrequent activity on the House floor, and Kaufman recently used a personal anecdote to show how leadership keeps House members in line. In an interview on the Codcast, Kaufman said the speaker demanded he support a tax bill in 2013 even though Kaufman thought the proposal was inadequate to meet the state’s transportation needs. DeLeo responded by calling Kaufman a “liar,” and said the events he described never happened, although another lawmaker recalled Kaufman talking about it contemporaneously.
On Wednesday, Kaufman was part of bipartisan panel discussing a report dubbed MassForward that found a dearth of women, people of color, and Republicans in Massachusetts political leadership. The report was written by Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and MassINC, which is the nonprofit parent of CommonWealth.
The 2013 tax bill Kaufman said he opposed raised the gas tax by 3 cents, indexed the tax to inflation, hiked the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, and instituted a new tax on certain computer software services. Lawmakers swiftly repealed the software tax and voters later repealed the provision linking gas tax increases to inflation.
Keith Mahoney, the vice president of communications and public affairs at the Boston Foundation and the moderator of the panel discussion, pressed Kaufman on whether his opposition to the tax package was out of step with voters because of the vote to repeal the gas tax indexing provision.
“The indexing was put in as a lame excuse for not doing what we should have done, which is raise the gas tax 15 to 25 cents,” Kaufman responded. “We came up with three cents, and then knowing that was inadequate, we threw in this little indexing – leaving it to the marketplace to do what we didn’t have the courage to do. Shame on us.”
Kaufman’s recent criticism of DeLeo is a marked departure from his time as House chair of the Revenue Committee, when he was at least outwardly on the same page as the speaker.
“Our founders didn’t design a system that was intended to avoid conflict,” said Kaufman, who added that the power structure in the House doesn’t reward independent thinking and in some cases punishes independent thought.
The centralization of power in the House was one aspect of the state’s political and governance structure that the report tries to address.
“Calling that out, I think, is really important,” said Peter Enrich, a law professor at Northeastern University who attended the event.