A lawmaker’s first duty is to vote, and to do it in a way that makes it clear exactly where that lawmaker stands. By passing a bill to legalize sports betting by a voice vote instead of a roll call, the Massachusetts Senate failed in that duty.
That one voice vote illustrates the larger cultural problem on Beacon Hill. “There is a fundamental opacity in the legislative process in Massachusetts and a damning lack of transparency here,” Jonathan Cohn, the policy director of the grassroots organization, Progressive Mass, said after the vote. Senate President Karen Spilka’s response to such criticism — along with her refusal to say where she herself stands on the legislation — does nothing to dispel it. Spilka told the State House News Service that an “exhaustive process” led up to the measure coming to the floor and that roll call votes were taken on some amendments to the bill.
Most constituents are not keyed into that “exhaustive process.” Yet they still deserve to know how their individual senator voted. Spilka also said “It honestly doesn’t matter where I stand.” But that’s not true. What leadership wants is generally what leadership gets in the Massachusetts legislature. And apart from her leadership position, Spilka is still a state senator with constituents, who have a right to know how she is representing them on Beacon Hill.
State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow — the Senate chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, the point person for the bill, and a candidate for lieutenant governor — initially requested that the Senate take a recorded roll call vote. However, according to State House News, Lesser ultimately asked for unanimous consent to withdraw his roll call request, which led to the voice vote. Lesser’s defense of that outcome is also less than convincing. He told Commonwealth Magazine there was “broad consensus“ and like Spilka, pointed to “a pretty exhaustive process” since the Supreme Court legalized sports betting four years ago. “The public does know how senators voted because there were multiple amendments and there was debate for hours throughout the day,” he added.
The existence of multiple amendments is even more reason to have senators cast individual votes for the ultimate product that emerges from all that sausage-making. Meanwhile, the suggestion that constituents must watch hours of debate via livestream to find out where their senator stands on any given issue does not exactly jibe with the realities of life. People have other things to do during the day, such as work. Meanwhile, the primary job of a lawmaker is to cast a vote.
A sports betting bill passed in the House permits betting on college sports, while the Senate bill prohibits it. So, perhaps the voice vote was an effort to keep the actual vote in the Senate close to the vest, since a close vote in the Senate could weaken the Senate’s hand in future negotiations. Such strategizing could explain the lack of transparency — but doesn’t justify it. Without a roll call vote, there will be no way to know whether senators who are appointed to a conference committee to work out differences between the bills support the legislation. Meanwhile, Spilka is not considered a fan of sports gambling. So the bill could just die in conference committee with her blessing, but without her ever saying she doesn’t support it.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives has a reputation for operating with less transparency than the Senate, said Cohn of Progressive Mass. But both legislative bodies, he said, embrace a style of consensus-building that “likes to pretend divisions don’t exist.” When they do, roll call votes are avoided. Lawmakers are counselled to withdraw amendments and a quick voice vote is called. He also said lawmakers who oppose a measure that is generally seen as popular seek the cover of a voice vote, rather than be recorded with a “nay.” Beacon Hill’s lack of transparency, said Cohn, “is striking, compared to other states. Massachusetts likes to view itself as a positive example, but this is one place where we can learn something from other states.”
All it takes is a little political courage and a willingness to do what a lawmaker is elected to do — put their name where their vote is.
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