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Activists call for legislative transparency

Tori Bedford
Activists call for legislative transparency
Activists rally for legislative rules reform outside the Massachusetts State House on Sunday. PHOTO: Tori Bedford / GBH News

Despite sweltering heat, a small crowd of roughly 50 activists and elected officials gathered on the steps of the Massachusetts State House Sunday afternoon to rally for transparency in legislation.

From the building’s front steps, organizer Ben Cohen gestured behind the group to a massive tapestry covering the State House’s facade, a picture of the building that conceals a layer of scaffolding and the building itself.

“Instead of addressing the issue of transparency head on, representatives come after us while they’re bundled up behind a potent visual metaphor here,” Cohen, a 21-year-old organizer with the progressive political group Act On Mass, said. “But this is an issue that can be fixed.”

Cohen and other activists are urging legislators to change House rules to make records of committee votes public, ensure that bills are public 72 hours before they are voted on, and reinstate term limits for Speaker of the House — a proposal that current House Speaker Ron Mariano has opposed.

“We’ve definitely been butting heads with Speaker Mariano,” Ella McDonald, a 22-year-old activist with Act On Mass, told GBH News.

In January, Mariano delayed the scheduled vote on his session’s rules until July and tasked the House Rules Committee with reviewing and studying the rules. The decision came in the midst of a statewide rules reform campaign led by roughly 20 progressive advocacy organizations, including Act On Mass, the Sunrise Movement, Mijente Boston, the Boston Indivisible Progressive Action Group, Our Climate Boston and others.

A report on the House committee’s findings is due on Thursday, sparking a renewed call from progressive organizations for constituents to put pressure on their representatives.

Mariano’s decision to delay the rules vote, McDonald said, came “in part because of the momentum that we built and seeing the power that we had.”

“We’ve been meeting with representatives, and asking constituents to meet with their representatives and ask them to support these rules reforms. I think people in House leadership have definitely seen that,” McDonald said, “and it’s made them a bit afraid.”

Mariano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eighteen representatives from across the state have committed their support for at least one of the proposed rules reforms, and four have publicly supported all three, including Erika Uyterhoeven, a state representative from Somerville who spoke at Sunday’s rally.

“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 ensure that we are actually fighting for the transparent democracy that every single one of you deserves.”

Transparency around legislation would benefit representatives as well, Uyterhoeven argued.

“During my first six months of being in office, not once have I had 72 hours to read a bill,” she said. “What I have had is anywhere between four to five hours to read the bill and to file amendments. Whether it was voting rights, critical funding for roads and bridges during the COVID crisis, whether it was for emergency paid sick time or whether it was for the rules — I never had 72 hours to review a bill and meaningfully propose changes to it.”

In reviews by transparency organizations, Massachusetts has received failing scores on openness, ranking 47th out of 50 states for lack of transparency according to a report card released in May by state legislature data aggregator Open States. In 2019, public policy think tank Pioneer Institute ranked Massachusetts last for transparency among the 47 states that require candidates to file statements of financial or economic interest.

Increasing transparency around legislation will help constituents to have more of a say in what moves forward, according to Andrew Flowers, an economist and former candidate for state representative.

“It’s going to begin to decentralize the power in the State House, and that’s where you get action on things that really benefit people’s lives: climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality,” Flowers told GBH News. “Those bills would have a greater spotlight on them and force legislators to either buck the leadership and go with what their constituents want or stay with leadership and be voted out, because it’s clearly on the record that they voted against this, whereas right now it’s all in the dark.”

At Sunday’s rally, a “legislative graveyard” of painted cardboard headstones rested on the State House steps, with grave markers for proposals like same-day voter registration, “killed in committee,” and single-payer healthcare, “killed in ‘studies’ since 1986, R.I.P.”

Sakina Cotton, a 15-year-old activist with Our Climate Boston, says issues like climate change and a possible Green New Deal for Boston would be significantly affected by legislative transparency reform.

“What we’re trying to do is have community voices heard, but that’s not possible if we don’t know what’s happening and we’re not certain that bills are having time to be carefully considered by representatives,” Cotton told GBH News. “What these amendments would do would make the work of organizations more effective and possible.”

Representatives need to be held accountable to their voting records, Cotton argued in a speech before the crowd.

“One more postponed committee vote or a lack of communication between organization and representative can mean that we don’t reach our carbon emission goals and we leave families in polluted areas that we cannot reverse,” Cotton said. “That is why we need transparency. I see this as us working for the priority of the people.

Tori Bedford (she/her/hers) covers Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan for GBH News 89.7.

Act On Mass, Legislative reforms, Massachusetts Legislature