Looking Back to What We Did and Didn't Do

As the 2001 legislative year ended and 2002 began, a small band of dissidents let it be know that they weren't at all pleased with the leadership of House Speaker Tom Finneran.

They couldn't get enough votes together on the Democrats' side of the aisle (they needed 81) to oust the Speaker, and the Republicans decided to stay out of the fight altogether.

But, privately, most House members groused about a lackluster year and the failure of their favorite bills to reach the House floor for debate.

You see, the Speaker keeps tight control over almost everything. Not just legislation, but everything. Legislation to budget to offices. Personable and bright, he may be. But nothing is done without his approval. Democrats fear him, and there aren't enough Republicans (about 22 of 160 members) to do any damage.

So when things like the budget should be completed on time, by a conference committee that is totally ignored, the Speaker himself goes head to head with the Senate President and things move slowly. Very slowly.

And if the Speaker personally opposes a piece of legislation--like insurance coverage for contraceptives--he holds the legislation back. Members never get to vote on those bills; they just don't come to the floor.

When some legislation does come to the floor, there is little dissent, little meaningful debate. The Democrats, afraid of losing something like a good office or a committee chairmanship, vote with the Speaker the vast majority of the time. Outspoken critics are shuttled to the side, ignored and treated as outcasts by leadership.

The State House News Service called it "one man rule" and reported that "more than anything, members have come to feel the Speaker makes so many decisions on his own, they can no longer tell their constituents they knew what's going on when the House makes important decisions."

It's frustrating to members, of course, because we're not very productive. Even when we know what's going on. We've had very, veryfew full formal sessions (just 22 in 2001). We were so inefficient we had to come back from December recess to pass the budget (five months late).

And we're open to criticism from the press and groups like the Coalition for Legislative Reform. That's a watchdog group made up of other groups like the League of Women Voters, Citizens for Limited Taxation, Common Cause and Citizens for Participation in Political Action.

They gave legislators reports cards, grading us on roll calls taken on disclosure of budget amendments, public campaign funding, lifting term limits on the speaker, separating veto override and redistricting debates, and postponing the rules debate until after the speaker announced committee assignments. I'm proud to say I got good grades!

But, they noted, as I wrote last week, only 177 bills were signed into law in the first half of this two-year session. Of those, they termed only 15 "substantive," or dealing with the entire state.

What were these bills? Five dealt with horse and dog racing. Redistricting for House and Senate districts. (I lost Montgomery, but kept Westfield intact.) New regulations for public accountants. Commercial codes. Testimony of violent crime victims at parole

hearings. Tax deductions for charitable donations. Unemployment benefits for victims of domestic abuse. Affordable housing (not yet completed because the conference committees haven't finished their work).

And we killed the idea of government-funded elections.

The House passed a sentencing reform plan. The Senate approved a domestic partnership bill and a measure to increase the minimum wage.

Oh yes, and we passed the budget. The bad news: the budget was late. The good news: because it was late and the recession had started a freefall in state revenues, we were able to make some budget cuts to deal with decreasing income.

Least productive year in recent history, cried the Coalition for Legislative Reform. They were right, of course.

But, it was an exciting and interesting and strange year as well.

The September 11 terrorist attacks exposed serious problems at Massport. The director resigned and a few other heads rolled, as well, as the Governor decried patronage, incompetence, and do-nothing jobs.

The day also became the public start of a recession, which put a serious crimp in state spending. We faced a multi-billion dollar budget crisis, but came up with a plan to give almost 7,000 state employees early retirement and some serious budget cuts.

Then heads began to roll at the Turnpike Authority, with the Governor demanding the resignation of two members who fought their dismissal in the courts. They lost.

Paul Cellucci resigned as Governor, Jane Swift became the youngest Governor in office and the only governor to give birth while in office. Twins.

That was the good news from the governor's household. The bad news came when her gay stepson criticized her for her stand on gay marriage and revealed that his dad, Governor Swift's husband, had been married three times before.

MCAS scores went up, as did the cost of The Big Dig. And that's how I remember the year.

The State House Press Corps put together its own list of 2001 political news. In order, the top ten stories were: the shakeup at Massport, the five month budget delay, Cellucci resignation and Swift ascension, Swift vs. Turnpike board members, Swift's twins, defunding of clean elections, redistricting controversy that forced Marty Meehan out of Governor's race, death of Congressman Joe Moakley, mini revolt against House leadership, and the recession.

Here's to a better, more productive, 2002.

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