Good Government Groups Warn of Power Consolidation by State Legislature

By Jonathan Cohn, Boston Ward 4 Democratic Committee

While the world is focused on COVID-19, the Massachusetts House of Representatives proposed new operating rules that advocates say are an attempt to grab power while people are preoccupied.

“People are dying, kids aren’t going to school, and most of us are worried about whether we’ll be able to continue putting food on the table and a roof over our heads,” said Jonathan Cohn, Issues Chair of Progressive Massachusetts. “Instead of tackling these problems, House leadership is using this crisis to further consolidate their own power.”

The proposed rules, released after close of business on Monday, April 27, would allow representatives to vote by phone but would substantially weaken public oversight and the ability of rank-and-file members to participate in debate. The biggest cause for concern is a rule which would increase the number of state representatives required to record a vote via roll call from 16 state representatives to 40.

 “This change to the roll call provisions does nothing but silence dissent and threaten our democracy,” noted Matt Miller, co-founder of Act On Mass. “It would make it impossible for a progressive stat representative to have a real floor debate on a critical issue without their amendment being defeated in a voice vote with no accountability. The idea that this is a necessary response to the Covid-19 emergency is laughable, because we’ve seen only a handful of examples of progressives seeking and demanding roll calls over the past 16 months since session began. This is about preventing voters from knowing how their representatives voted.”

The proposed rules establish a complicated system of telephone participation for members to engage remotely, but many questions remain about how the system would work. Advocates are concerned about how some provisions would work, like requiring state representatives seeking to make a motion to first contact their division chairs in order to be recognized, schedule their speeches in advance, and unclear provisions for what happens with technical glitches cause a representatives to lose connection. And the rules don’t end automatically when the State of Emergency ends.

“Clearly, we need to give our legislature some flexibility during this pandemic to provide much-need assistance for impacted communities, and they need to figure out a path forward that works for them. But the House’s need for speedy consensus can’t come at the cost of basic transparency. The ability to know how our legislators are voting is critical for a healthy, functioning democracy.” said Jacob Stern, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Massachusetts Chapter.

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