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Massachusetts House will review its rules, citing concerns about the rise of ‘opaque’ advocacy groups

Activists have criticized the Legislature for not being more transparent

The Massachusetts State House. A legislative committee is to report recommendations by July 1 about how lawmakers interact with the public.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

House Speaker Ronald Mariano told colleagues this week that the Legislature will review its internal rules to deal with what he called a growing number of “unregistered, or vaguely-affiliated” advocacy coalitions on Beacon Hill.

Mariano’s plans, circulated to state representatives late Wednesday, could set up a substantial shift in how the House interacts with organizers and advocates, including those who have vocally pushed lawmakers to make the legislative process, and themselves, more transparent.

Under a House order adopted Thursday, the chamber’s Committee on Rules will investigate the House’s policies and rules — including its legislative procedures and those “related to the conduct of advocates” — and produce a report by July 1, with recommended changes.

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The House also approved an order to operate under pandemic-era rules until at least July 15, allowing lawmakers to vote remotely and for the chamber to operate with fewer people in the State House.

In his e-mail to House members, the Quincy Democrat cited a “significant increase and shift in how unregistered, or vaguely-affiliated, advocates and coalitions” engage with lawmakers and their staffs.

“Members and staff should be readily aware of who they are meeting with, which external groups comprise a coalition, and how those groups are funded,” Mariano said, referring to some of the groups as “opaque coalitions.”

Mariano did not specify to which organizations he was referring. But the pointed language exposed what’s been a growing tension between legislators, including the moderates who lead the House, and the rise of groups that have been critical of how the House operates.

The Legislature, like the governor’s office and the Judiciary, is exempt from the state’s open records law; Massachusetts is the only state where all three branches of government claim they’re not bound by disclosure laws.

Two House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to relay internal discussions, said lawmakers have complained of feeling sideswiped in meetings they believed were set up by a constituent but instead include advocates who don’t live in their districts.

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“We want to have a continuous relationship” with advocacy groups, one of the officials said. But there’s also a “desire to reevaluate how these organizations interact with members.”

Groups such as Raise Up, a large coalition of unions and community organizations, and Act on Mass, a nonprofit that has pushed for progressive causes and legislative rules changes, have gained increasing clout within the State House while advocating for a variety of issues and bills.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit, has operated on Beacon Hill for several years, opposing tax and spending hikes; it previously targeted Democratic lawmakers with mailers without identifying its donors.

Act on Mass, which has pushed lawmakers to reshape their rules, including by making committee votes publicly available, said in a statement Thursday that a deep review of the rules “is long overdue” — and framed Mariano’s announcement as evidence it’s having an impact.

As part of extending its emergency rules, Mariano said the House would also pursue “meaningful but limited changes” in its rules, including posting roll calls of votes “in a more timely and accessible manner.”

“State House leadership is attempting to resist a popular movement for rules reform the only way they know how: by delaying action, shutting out constituents, and disempowering grassroots advocacy organizations,” Miriam Siegel, a Natick volunteer with Act on Mass, said in a statement released by the group. “How can we be empowered as constituents if we are constantly kept in the dark?”

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Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said that should the House pursue changes in how lawmakers interact with the public, including advocates, there should be public hearings. “There aren’t a lot of open debates in that chamber,” he said.

Representative Bradley Jones, the House’s minority leader, said he doesn’t object to the review initiated by Mariano, but said it could be difficult to define the gray area between advocacy and lawmaking.

“Advocacy has transformed,” the North Reading Republican said. “Some of that is based on social media and the natural progression of time. And I would say there are more groups advocating now than there ever have been. Are there any guidelines that need to be developed around that? Maybe there’s not.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.