GUEST COLUMN: A change is badly needed in the Massachusetts Legislature
To the editor:
By Lesley Rebecca Phillips
It was recently stated in a well-known liberal blog that “the Massachusetts House of Representatives is the house where good bills go to die.” While obviously meant to be provocative, this statement belies a deeper truth, namely that for all of Massachusetts’ vaunted liberalism, and for all its Democratic supermajorities (often “veto-proof” ones), the Massachusetts House is far from the progressive body that one would expect it to be.
We could cite many examples of this, but here are two very timely ones:
First, when the Legislature was considering the Omnibus Elections Reform bill several years ago, the version of this proposal that came out of the Senate contained eight major reforms. The House of Representatives’ counterpart included only three. One of the Senate’s measures that was not included – and was apparently kept by the House leadership from being restored in Conference - was Same-Day Voter Registration.
Next week, we are having a state primary on what must be one of the oddest dates in election history anywhere, the day after one of the summer’s most heavily traveled holiday weeks (and the first day of school in many cities and towns – schools where coincidentally a large number of polling places are located). Because of the House’s refusal to include registration reform in that package, registration for this important election was also closed before the middle of August, also a record early date for Massachusetts.
That early close of registration meant that many, if not most, incoming college and university students were effectively barred from voting in the first election in their new home state. With the increasing interest of young voters in the political process, this is just plain wrong. (Furthermore, because of the holiday weekend, applications for absentee ballots, normally available here until the day immediately before an election, will close this year three days earlier.)
Second, when our Legislature, spurred on by the SJC’s action in making Massachusetts the first state to recognize marriage equality, finally began to explore guaranteeing full civil rights to transgender persons (and long after at least a dozen other states had already done so), it took over half a dozen years, and repeated re-introduction of this legislation in several legislative terms, before the controlling leadership of the House allowed this measure to come to a vote – and then, only after the leadership had stripped out of the bill its all-important Public Accommodations provisions.
Two full terms later, the speaker finally allowed the Public Accommodations amendment to come to a vote. It of course passed overwhelmingly, but immediately prompted an ugly and hateful attempt to reverse this through a ballot referendum, which not only comes to a vote in November, but is actually seen as having a real possibility of passing.
A change in direction is badly needed. We have seen three successive Speakers of the Massachusetts House resign under pressure of criminal indictment and possible or actual imprisonment. The present speaker has thankfully committed no actions which sink to that level, but the combination of blocking needed legislation, pushing the members to agree to a reversal of his own earlier imposed house leadership terms limits, and forcing through in the opening weeks of the current legislative term – and as the very first vote of the newly-elected representatives at that time – a pay raise bill designed at least in part to engender fealty from his supporters, suggest that the time is now to seek new and more progressive leadership.
If privileged by the voters of my district to be sent to the House of Representatives for the upcoming term, I will look forward to my first votes being for such new leadership.
Lesley Rebecca Phillips, a democratic state committeewoman for Middlesex and Suffolk District, is a candidate for state representative of the 25th Middlesex District.