Accountable Government

These are the fundamental principles on which our commonwealth and our nation are founded. Our Declaration of Independence and our state and federal constitutions hold out the promise of equality and justice for all of us. Our history has been marked by the evolution of our understanding of what these principles mean in action, as applied to different groups and situations. As a student of constitutional law, I’m always trying to think ahead, to see where we haven’t caught up with our ideals, and where our laws should be heading next.

Keeping Weapons of War off Our Streets

In January, I once again filed An Act assuring municipal control of military equipment by local law enforcement, (H.2503),which was had its first hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security on October 10th. The Trump Administration has reinstated the Pentagon's controversial "1033" program, flooding local law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment. There is new research that reveals a strong link between 1033 transfers to local law enforcement agencies and increased instances of officer-involved shootings.

 

This change in federal policy makes it especially important that Massachusetts acts to instill some oversight of the flow of battlefield ordinance into our communities. My bill would require a public hearing and vote of the local legislative body before a police department can acquire surplus military vehicles or equipment. This allows for thoughtful, case-by-case deliberations before local police officers can acquire the trappings of an occupying army.

 

To make your voice heard on this timely matter, I encourage you to submit testimony to the Joint Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security in favor of H.2503. Testimony can be sent to the committee's research director at meghan.kilcoyne@mahouse.gov.

October 13, 2017

Second Vote of the Session: House Rules, and my Little Victory

At the beginning of each Session, the House and Senate adopt Rules for the governance of each of their chambers, and Joint Rules for the relationship between the chambers. House members were presented with proposed Rules at the end of January; they were discussed in Caucus, and voted on that afternoon. A proposed change that caught my attention was this: "Rule 81(F): All formal sessions of the House of Representatives shall be open to both commercial and public radio  and television....Television, radio or web-broadcasts may be prohibited on any given day by the Speaker."

 

I did not think that we in Massachusetts would see locally the shutting-out of the press displayed by the new administration in Washington. Still, why expressly allow in our Rules the possibility of such an action? I quickly drafted and filed amendment 28, aimed at adding to the last line of the section quoted above, after the word "Speaker," the clause: "with the approval of the House."

   

If, for some reason, a formal session was going to be closed to live coverage, I thought that the membership should be taking a vote on the exclusion. I figured that any non-transparency should itself be transparent. In order to file my amendment with the Clerk, I needed a title, and chose this one: "Amendment to maintain democratic decision making in regard to press and media coverage of formal sessions."

 

Ultimately, I got this amendment added. It was not debated on the floor, as that's not the way the House typically does business these days. The amendment was adopted, however, and incorporated into the Rules. I have not the slightest indication that folks from any media outlet actually read the Rules, and knew what had been proposed - but I know, and now you do, too. 

March 14, 2017

First Vote of the Session: Legislative Pay Raises, and Why I Voted Against Them

As a matter of Massachusetts law, only the governor can set the pay for members of the legislature, and it's supposed to be based on state median income data. Gov. Patrick cut legislative pay twice in his tenure, and twice flatlined it; Gov. Baker raised it in January, 2017, to $62,500. The Speaker and Senate President receive separate salaries, and certain legislative leaders receive stipends on top of base pay.

 

The first bill which the House took up in our 2017-18 session was one giving pay increases to the Senate President and Speaker of the House, as well as to judges, the governor and other constitutional officers. It also raised the stipends to appointed committee chairs and other legislative leaders who receive these extra amounts. In the House, it substantially increased the number of positions eligible for these increases, to 80 out of 160 total members.

 

I voted against this bill, and to sustain the governor's veto of it. Although I've heard some positive feedback about my vote, I've also had questions about why I voted as I did. I thought I should explain.

 

I do believe people should be paid fairly for their work. In absolute terms, it was not unfair that the Speaker and Senate president, who have demanding managerial jobs, got raises that put them on par, pay-wise, with school principals, or police captains. But we work in the political realm, and other circumstances matter.

 

I thought that it was wrong for this bill to be the first action taken by the state legislature in its new session, and with little notice, and no public hearing. The legislative increases were in the more than 40% range, which I thought to be too much at once, since most workers are seeing increases of 2-3%, if they are receiving any at all. At the same time, the big-ticket expenses - housing, health insurance, college tuition - are rising at a faster rate than wages.

 

Revenue, at the same time, has been falling annually over several years, largely due to automatic reductions in the personal income tax rate. Declining revenues have led to cuts in the budgets for many important programs and services. In this fiscal year, revenue projections have fallen below estimates, prompting Gov. Baker to make mid- fiscal year "9C" cuts to budget appropriations, which have not been restored (Note: on March 15, the House is presently scheduled to vote on a Supplemental Budget, which could restore some of these cuts.)


To me, these considerations mitigated against a big pay increase vote, right out of the box. Nine Democrats in the House voted against the increases, as did all the Republicans. The Republicans in leadership positions in their party, however, have mostly accepted their additional stipends, prompting some derision in the press: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/03/05/house-gop-voted-against-pay-raise-but-won-turn-down/EyMc6gxWD0t0ZFFH5gDDFL/story.html 

March 14, 2017

Transparency in Government: Reform of the Public Records Law

On November 18, 2015, the House engrossed its bill to update the Massachusetts Public Records law, H.3858. The bill was not as far-reaching as the original House bill, of which I was co-sponsor, but that bill encountered serious pushback. As a member of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight (SARO), I was asked soon after the bill's public hearing by my Committee Chair, Rep. Peter Kocot, to try to find common ground between supporters of the bill (media companies; ACLU, Common Cause, etc.) and its critics (Massachusetts Municipal Association; Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association, etc.)

 

H.3858 - which passed overwhelmingly, and without much debate - was tremendously contentious in its negotiation phase. Part of the difficulty that the municipalities had was the bill's uniform application to all cities and towns, which can range from large, well-staffed, professionally-run cities, to remote small towns which rely mainly on volunteer staffing and have no internet service. Much of the bill's inherent tension arises from the competing values of transparency and confidentiality - the press and public often wish to know every unfiltered detail in a record - versus the legal duty of municipalities to keep certain information private. There was concern over health, family, school and personnel information about individuals; ongoingpolicydiscussions, andunsolvedcriminal investigations, and other such issues.

 

There was also disagreement over how long a municipality should take to produce requested records; what penalties should attach to failures to produce such records, and who should be penalized for failure - the individual employee, or the taxpayers?

 

Public records requests can run from the simple (What are police officers paid? What is the tax valuation for properties on my street?) to the monumental (requests to Boston for every communication  concerning the proposed 2024 Olympics; to small towns in western MA to turn over every communication about controversial proposed natural gas pipelines, or to another town for copies of every email and text message that its elected officials have sent or received over the last 5 years.) In the end, the reforms envisioned by the House are fairly modest, but will be an improvement, and should be a good starting point for further reforms.

 

The Senate has yet to take up public records reform, so this debate will continue

January 26, 2016

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Denise.Provost@mahouse.gov

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