Ben Downing: End Of Session

Jul 31, 2018

I had planned on preparing a summary of the soon to be finished Massachusetts legislative session. However, as I researched the various pending pieces of legislation being debated, I couldn't help but focus on the broader dynamics driving the process. Increasingly, each two-year session has been defined by the long, slow build up to a final days’ logjam. To some degree, this is unavoidable. Timelines dictate activity. However, the trend is noteworthy, not just for its hectic nature, but for who it benefits.

First, a compact calendar in the final months, weeks, days and hours of legislative session is entirely avoidable. In recent editions of the legislature it is not odd for committees to take months to simply organize, set rules and hearing dates. By the time administrative rules are agreed to and committees have begun their work, the majority of legislators have turned their attention to budget deliberations, depriving large-scale reforms of the key ingredient they need for careful consideration and success: attention.

After the budget is settled, an opportunity exists for some legislative activity. Between Labor Day and Thanksgiving had, traditionally, been a time where major proposals were advanced by committees, the administration and/or one of the two legislative branches. Increasingly, this time has been filled with committees' first hearings on proposals and advancing of noncontroversial matters. At this point, if it wasn’t abundantly clear, a pattern emerges. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to debate, discuss, research and negotiate proposals. Fewer opportunities for public input and feedback. All of which is especially important on complex controversial matters. This is not to say it ensures passage or success, but at the very least, the public is made aware of the various positions in a debate and can form a more educated opinion about the matter.

The power of the pattern only grows as the total days left in session shrink. Senators and representatives pushing for broad, sweeping changes - fixing our education funding formula, combating climate change, reducing healthcare costs and more - are ultimately presented with an impossible choice - take a watered down version of their proposal or get nothing at all. The same dynamic plays out on a larger scale when one branch of the legislature disagrees with the prioritization of an issue. Add in a skeptical governor, and the opportunity for change shrinks.

This trend would simply be an interesting administrative problem to solve were it not for one undeniable fact. This haphazard process benefits one group and one group only - entrenched special interests. Without time for public debate and input, special interests defending the status quo have an outsized voice. They are able to kill or water down some of the very proposals which could help tackle the major issues Massachusetts is facing, simply because the legislature waited till it was too late. Instead of having to defend their position multiple times under the harsh light of public scrutiny they are able to do so once or twice, if at all, in hushed conversations in the State House halls.

Some good work will be done at the end of this session, but it will be in spite of a process that is broken and serves special interests and the status quo. Voters should ask why.  

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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