David Bernstein: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”

David Bernstein has really had it with the Massachusetts Legislature’s opaque back-room operations and its continuous failure to address many of the state’s long-term needs. And in this month’s Boston Magazine, he’s offering a solution: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”:

If all of this infuriates you; if you’re also enraged that Beacon Hill continuously fails to seriously address the state’s long-term needs for transportation, housing, education, and development; and if you’re sick and tired of the state legislature’s opaque back-room operations, I have a proposal for you: Eliminate the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Points for boldness! This is also a thoughtful argument that touches on the feudal origins of the two-chamber system (the nobles needed a safe space where they could protect themselves against the tyranny of the majority) and the present effect of that system, which is to allow “special interests to gum up the works without any public accounting for legislators.” Exhibit A in this regard is the conference committee process, which comes into play every time the House and Senate pass differing versions of a bill:

As Beacon Hill watchers know, bills in conference committee pile up until the final days of the formal session, when the supposed work of two years, 200 legislators, and committees in open hearings is actually done in a hectic rush, by a handful of people, horse-trading within and between bills, until finally spitting out new versions for the two chambers to hastily endorse.

Also not to be missed is a timeline detailing Speaker DeLeo’s consolidation of power and predicting the end date of the DeLeo era (January 2021, when he becomes a lobbyist).

A couple thoughts:

First, in deciding on its governing rules for this new (2017-2018) session, the Legislature acknowledged the problem of the end-of-session bottleneck. The new rules require the joint committees, which handle the initial consideration of bills, to complete their work in early February rather than in mid-March, and they also prohibit the appointment of new conference committees within 14 days of the end of a legislative session. But there’s no deadline for conference committees to finish their work, so stay tuned to July of next year to see if these rules changes have practical results.

Second, if the Legislature is continually failing to address the state’s pressing issues, the question arises — what are they doing with their time?

My theory: they’re doing a lot of enacting, but the bills that are passed fall under the decidedly “noncontroversial” category — designating bridges and overpasses in honor of beloved community members; establishing sick leave banks for one state employee at a time, exempting a single municipal position from the Civil Service laws, or granting one additional liquor license to one town.

In 1997, the noncontroversial bills like these made up about a tenth of the Legislature’s output. Now it’s more like one in three.

Uncontroversial

The graph presents a corollary of Bernstein’s thesis — our Legislature avoids many pressing issues (charter schools and marijuana being two recent examples) and increasingly contents itself with hyperlocal items that lack wide application or great import.

Anyway, read the article. I’m not convinced about the remedy he’s proposing, but the diagnosis, seems to me, is beyond dispute.

Could a Graduated Income Tax Save the Mass GOP? (Field Notes from the House Budget Debate)

The House of Representatives started its annual budget debate yesterday, and as is customary, the first amendments to be considered concerned the topic of revenues. The 29 GOP Representatives were bursting with ideas — for tax credits, tax deductions, tax exemptions, tax holidays and tax cuts. Anything, in other words, to shrink revenues. And while they probably held little hope for the success of their proposals, this being an election year, defeat on the House floor just might turn into success at the ballot box come November.

Except that it hasn’t — and for such a long time. The Republicans have been failing to thrive in the Massachusetts legislature for decades — even in the relatively bountiful 1970’s, when Frank Sargent was governor and GOP giants from Massachusetts trod the earth in Washington. (In 1972, Republican John Volpe, former Governor, was Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation, Elliot Richardson, former Attorney General, was his Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Edward Brooke, former Attorney General, served in the United States Senate.) Even then, Republicans held only 52 of the 240 House seats and seven of the 40 Senate seats.

To stave off the utter extinction of the party in the state legislature, conservative Boston Globe columnist David B. Wilson, the Jeff Jacoby of his day, urged them to embrace a different position on taxes. A position that, as their prescient Governor Sargent had already concluded in announcing his support, could resonate with Democrats and with Independents: a graduated income tax. Where, he asked, is the Republican officeholder willing to see in the graduated tax referendum a political opportunity?

Take it away, Mr. Wilson (Boston Globe, December 16, 1972):

There are good, sound, respectable ideological questions in this country today on which a conservative party stands to make ground once it recognizes that the word “conservative” is no longer a dirty word…The conservative positions on these issues are, one suspects, the political convictions of vast numbers of Democrats and Independents. They are intellectually respectable and they represent the interests of vast numbers of decent, worried, confused people. The Republican Party is the natural and appropriate vehicle for the expression of such views. So far it has betrayed itself by ignoring the opportunity. If it continues to do so, it is doomed to the status of an inconsiderable ethnic eccentricity.

In yesterday’s debate, the Republican proposals to cut the income and sales taxes met their usual fate in the House, and by the usual margins. So, next year, why not listen to some ancient GOP wisdom and try something different, like appealing to people’s sense of fairness instead of their resentments?

The Republican plan for a progressive income tax — you’ve got to admit, it would be a bold departure.