Campaigners call for legislative transparency on Beacon Hill
Despite the stifling heat, a small crowd of around fifty activists and elected officials gathered on the steps of Massachusetts State House on Sunday afternoon to rally behind the transparency of the legislation.
From the steps of the building, organizer Ben Cohen motioned behind the group to a massive tapestry covering the facade of the State House, an image of the building that hides a layer of scaffolding and the building itself.
“Instead of tackling the issue of transparency head-on, representatives are chasing us while they are bundled up behind a powerful visual metaphor,” said Cohen, a 21-year-old organizer with the progressive political group Act On Mass. “But it is a problem that can be solved.”
Cohen and other activists urge lawmakers to change House rules to make the records of committee votes public, ensure bills are public 72 hours before they are voted on, and restore presidential term limits of the House – a proposal that the current Speaker of the House, Ron Mariano has opposed.
“We have definitely clashed with President Mariano,” Ella McDonald, a 22-year-old activist from Act On Mass, told GBH News.
In January, Mariano postponed a planned vote on his session’s rules until July and tasked the House Rules Committee to review and study the rules. The move came amid a statewide rule reform campaign by some 20 progressive rights organizations, including Act On Mass, Sunrise Movement, Mijente Boston, Boston Indivisible Progressive Action Group, Our Climate Boston, and others.
A report on the House committee’s findings is expected Thursday, triggering a new call from progressive organizations for voters to put pressure on their representatives.
Mariano’s decision to delay voting on the rules, McDonald said, came “in part because of the momentum we built and the power we had.”
“We met with representatives and asked voters to meet with their representatives and ask them to support these rule reforms. I think the leadership of the House certainly saw that, ”said McDonald,“ and it scared them a little. “
Mariano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eighteen representatives from across the state pledged to support at least one of the proposed rule reforms, and four publicly supported all three, including Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville state representative who spoke at the Sunday gathering.
“I don’t work for corporations, I don’t work for corporate lobbyists, and I certainly don’t work for the speaker. I work for the people, ”Uyterhoeven told the crowd. “People elect us to make sure that we are really fighting for the transparent democracy that each of you deserves. ”
Transparency around the legislation would also benefit officials, Uyterhoeven argued.
“In my first six months in office, I haven’t had 72 hours to read a bill once,” she said. “What I got was between four and five hours to read the bill and table amendments. Whether it was voting rights, essential financing of roads and bridges during the COVID crisis, whether it was for emergency paid sick leave or whether it was for the rules – I never had 72 hours to examine a bill and propose significant changes.
In reviews of transparency organizations, Massachusetts received ratings of failure on openness, ranking 47th out of 50 states for lack of transparency according to school report released in May by the Open States State Legislature Data Aggregator. In 2019, the Pioneer Institute public policy think tank class Massachusetts is last for transparency among the 47 states that require applicants to file declarations of financial or economic interest.
Increasing transparency around the legislation will help voters have more say in what goes forward, according to Andrew Flowers, an economist and former candidate for state representative.
“It’s going to start to decentralize power to the State House, and that’s where you act on things that really benefit people’s lives: climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality,” Flowers told GBH News. “These bills would point them more at them and force lawmakers to overthrow the leadership and follow what their constituents want or stay with the leadership and be defeated because it is clearly established that they voted against it,” whereas at present it is all in the dark.
At Sunday’s rally, a “legislative cemetery” of painted cardboard gravestones rested on the steps of the State House, with gravestones for proposals such as same-day voter registration, “killed in committee” and single-payer health care, “killed in ‘studies’ since 1986, RIP”
Sakina Cotton, a 15-year-old activist with Our Climate Boston, says issues such as climate change and a possible Green New Deal for Boston would be significantly affected by legislative transparency reform.
“What we are trying to do is make the voices of the community heard, but that is not possible if we do not know what is going on and if we are not sure that the bills have the right to do so. time to be carefully considered by representatives, ”Cotton told GBH News. “What these changes would do, would make the work of organizations more efficient and possible.”
Representatives must be held accountable for their votes, Cotton argued in a speech to the crowd.
“One more postponed committee vote or lack of communication between the organization and the representative can mean that we are not meeting our carbon emissions targets and we are leaving families in polluted areas that we cannot reverse. “Cotton said. “That’s why we need transparency. I see it as we are working for the priority of the people.