What Do Legislative Committees Do?

As the 2001-2002 legislative session gets fully underway, committees are beginning to meet. Bills have been assigned. Members of committees named. And hearings start.

Generally, the first session of each committee is informational–meeting staff members working with the committee, along with lobbyists, and organizations with interests in pending legislation.

Then, we hold public hearings on every bill, some 8,000 each session. Anyone may speak for or against proposed legislation. I’ve been at hearings that are an hour long, others that are 12 hours long.

Long Term Debt and Capital Expenditures, on which I am Ranking Republican, generally holds three one-hour hearings a day, each focusing on a specific government entity, three days a week for three or four weeks. We generally do not deal with the public, but put controls on the state’s debt level and departmental capital spending.

Banks and Banking (again, I am Ranking Republican) began work this past week, starting with an overview of issues from Mass Bankers, representing 231 of 239 banks in the state, and a meeting to set rules we will use in hearings and to establish a schedule of hearings. Every Tuesday, 11 a.m. until finished, now through June.

And, the Insurance Committee, where I’m serving for the 7th year. We, too, had our orientation this week, with rules, schedule, and briefings by key players. The schedule? Every Monday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. until finished, now through May.

After holding public hearings, committees vote in executive session. They can kill the legislation by voting that it "ought not to pass" or by putting it into a study, send the bill on to still another committee, or approve it and send it to the House and Senate for final action. There are, of course, some finite details, such as which committees schedule the bill for debate, for example, but I will save the specifics for another time.

More interesting, I find, are the things learned while attending meetings, briefings and hearings.

In Banks and Banking, for example, I learned that the banks in this state have assets of $373-billion. That there are 2,000 branch offices, 4,000 ATMs and 80,000 employees.

And, they make $30-million in charitable contributions, so-called community reinvestments, each year.

Banks range from the biggest (Fleet and Citizens, for example) to the smallest, in Bridgewater. The number of banks in Massachusetts have decreased, from 3,980 15 years ago to 239 today.

Banks, by the way, worry about competition–but not necessarily from other banks. They worry about finance companies, credit unions, mortgage companies, brokerage firms, insurance companies, and internet banks.

They also realize that, thanks to technology, they can operate in the 24/7 mode, with e-commerce, online banking, electronic signatures, and point of sale transactions.

That’s jut for starters.

Insurance Committee? I learned there are 26,000 licensed physicians in Massachusetts and the Mass Medical Society counts 17,000 of them as members. The Society, founded in 1781, is the oldest medical society in the country.

I learned a lot of acronyms–MAHMO, MECF, LIAM, MAIA, AAI, NAII. And more. I promise not to use them.

There are 22,000 members of the Mass Nurses Association. There are 92,718 people in Massachusetts who work in the insurance industry. They earn $4-million a year.

Baystaters pay $30-billion a year in insurance premiums.

There’s a familiar face on the cover of the annual report for the Mass Hospital Association. George Koller, head of Noble Hospital. He, Jack Danahey, and others from Noble are inside, as well.

Finally, Long Term Debt.

I particularly enjoy Long Term Debt. It’s the smallest committee in the House, one that an observer called "a step up from Ways and Means." We get to talk, one on one, with the major players in the state. Secretary of Public Safety Jane Perlov, Colonel DiFava who is head of the state police, Housing and Community Development director Jane Wallis Gumble, Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Mass Aeronautics Commission director Robert Mallard, sheriffs and district attorneys, judges and financial officers.

Facts learned in Long Term Debt? Things most people never know–for example, to fully fund E-Government, to create a full-service government that people can bring into their homes or offices, will cost $95-million, according to the state’s Information Technology Department. And that doesn’t include things like an e-mail system to serve all state employees (another $25-million) and other techi things like a wireless network, and a data center.

U-Mass has some $525-million in state debt, money used for capital expenses like the new field house at Westfield State. (We’ll spend more than $7-million there over the next five years.)

Perhaps most fascinating was a review of Devens, the former military area being turned into a completely new city, with everything from a shelter for battered women and a day care center, affordable housing and a library, to a fire station and schools, golf course and chapel.

We discussed the 618 bridges in Massachusetts that are structurally deficient, the $400-million a year cost for the central artery project, or "big dig," and the $816,000 earmarked for Barnes Airport over the next couple years.

The list is endless. As is the variety of communities, activities, formal sessions, debates, speakers and meetings we enjoy as legislators.

Take this coming week.

From Monday, when we’ll hear Prof. Monica McWilliams, co-founder and elected representative of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, speak in the Lyceum Series the House sponsors.

To Friday, with two legislative breakfasts (Emergency Medical Services and Recycling), a legislative meeting at Noble Hospital, two lunches (district courts and home builders), the CNN taping at Westfield High, and the beginning of a weekend conference on alternative medicine.

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