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editorial

Closed-door dealings yield big bills, but little scrutiny

The strengths and weaknesses of Massachusetts’s single-party-dominated Legislature were on display in the closing days of the session, as House and Senate leaders compromised with each other and Governor Deval Patrick to arrive at reasonable legislation to curb health care costs, even as they rejected his sensible efforts to add more judicial flexibility to the “three-strikes” crime bill.

Backed by substantial majorities in their respective chambers, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray had the strength to negotiate with Patrick on almost equal terms and reshape important legislation even as time was running short. If there were less power concentrated in the persons of DeLeo and Murray, such sweeping bills as the “three strikes” and health care laws might have been undermined by legislative wrangling.

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On the other hand, in a more balanced Legislature there would almost certainly have been more time devoted to open debate on policies with major implications for criminal justice, health care, and the economy — and citizens could feel more confident that all angles and consequences had been appropriately explored.

The health care legislation was the product of a long process involving many warring constituencies, from business leaders, eager to drive down health-insurance costs; to the health plans, who wanted forceful legislative intervention to help them deal with the market power of expensive providers; to the teaching hospitals, who were fearful that their excellence would be jeopardized by excessive government intervention.

The House’s bill clearly went too far toward a heavy-handed regulatory regime. Patrick was right to be skeptical of several of its key provisions, and to seek a different mechanism for dealing with the bargaining power of Partners HealthCare and other hospital networks. Still, the governor’s alternative was too broad and too vague to give hospitals clear signposts. The ultimate legislation, which owes a lot to Senate leaders determined neither to overreach nor to be stampeded, seems to strike a workable compromise. Still, because that compromise came very late in the process, this critical piece of the health care legislation wasn’t subject to either the full analysis or the extended public debate such important legislation should receive.

On the crime bill, Patrick was right to push for more discretion for judges to go beyond prescribed sentencing guidelines when deciding whether to grant inmates the possibility of parole. The Legislature’s job is to provide clear instructions on how to handle different types of criminals, but not to tie judges’ hands with ironclad, immutable rules. Some tightening of parole guidelines was necessary; but the final legislation, which Patrick reluctantly — and somewhat surprisingly — decided to sign, may well keep some offenders in prison too long, draining state resources and prolonging their rehabilitation.

No process is perfect. DeLeo, Murray, and Patrick deserve credit for rising to the occasion on important matters facing the state. But they also should be more mindful of the need for full consultation, debate, and transparency. Massachusetts’ leaders rightly aspire to do big things — but are too comfortable doing them behind closed doors.

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