On Monday, Massachusetts lawmakers were given less than 24 hours to read a 129-page bill on police reform before a vote scheduled for Tuesday. While this bill will impact every city and town in Massachusetts, only a handful of legislators had any input on the final bill, which I voted against. Everyone else was expected to accept a deal made behind closed doors. This counterintuitive state of affairs is the norm on Beacon Hill, one of the least transparent state legislatures in the country.
In July, the House took two days to debate police reform. The process was what voters expect from a deliberative body. Progressives, conservatives, and moderates offered over 200 amendments reflecting their diverse constituencies and opinions. The Senate had a similarly vigorous debate.
Unfortunately, after the House and the Senate each passed a bill, the process became an example of why the public is distrustful of Beacon Hill. A conference committee of six lawmakers was selected from the 200 members of the Legislature to reach a compromise between the two bills. After four months of deliberation, that committee produced a final bill with little input from and no signatures of two of its members, Representative Tim Whelan and Senator Bruce Tarr. The frustration expressed by the House membership was exemplified by the close 92-67 vote.
Despite the conference committee taking four months to agree on a compromise, legislators were brought in for a final vote less than 24 hours after the conference bill was released. Having a single day to review and make a decision on major legislation makes a mockery of representative democracy. The bill covers a wide variety of issues including but not limited to the use of force, facial recognition, certification and de-certification of officers. Each issue is complex. Lawmakers should have had time to consult with stakeholders, experts, and constituents before casting a vote on the final version of the bill.
Rushed votes on bills written behind closed doors distort representative democracy and legislative debate. Thankfully, there will soon be a chance to change how the House of Representatives is run. The membership will have a say in whether or not they want to be more involved in the crafting of public policy that affects their constituents by changing the House rules in January. The legislation the Commonwealth creates is too important to be voted on before being read and deliberated. While there are several structural changes in how the Legislature operates that need to change, allowing 72 hours for a legislator and the public to read a bill would be one major step forward.
Patrick Kearney is a Democratic state representative from the 4th Plymouth District, representing Marshfield and Scituate.