Beacon Hill legislators have a reputation for living in their own political bubble, removed from the day-to-day concerns of average citizens. It’s commonly said that voters tend to like their individual senator or representative but don’t trust the Legislature as a whole, which can appear consumed with internecine squabbles. House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s recent successful quest to remove term limits from the speakership is a classic example of self-serving actions spurring skepticism in the general public.
That is why the state Senate’s listening tour, which began yesterday in western Massachusetts, is a refreshing reversal. It’s also a smart way for newly elected Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to begin his term.
The Senate will conduct eight meetings across the Commonwealth in February and early March. Senator Michael Rodrigues reportedly brought up the idea, which is modeled on a series of economic development forums held in 2003. Both Rosenberg and Bruce Tarr, the Senate’s minority leader, plan to attend all eight sessions. The entire membership is invited to attend, and they should.
As a policy maker, Governor Charlie Baker has the advantage of canvassing the entire state in his recent campaign, meeting with countless residents about their concerns and ideas. While that’s not a process that the Senate can possibly duplicate, this statewide tour will undoubtedly give members an expanded perspective. One key theme they’ll likely hear: the need for more opportunity across more of Massachusetts.
Hailing from Amherst, Rosenberg knows quite well that the economic recovery on prominent display in Boston’s downtown has yet to reach into farther corners of the Commonwealth. Disparities in the unemployment rates remain surprisingly wide: Boston’s is 4.5 percent, but New Bedford’s is still more than 9 percent and Lawrence’s more than 10 percent. Narrowing this divide — particularly by improving education and job training to make sure fewer workers are being left behind — is one of the greatest challenges facing Baker and legislators. It can’t hurt for the senators to hear firsthand about the current hurdles from those most affected.
Citizens see the Beacon Hill political structure as monolithic and unapproachable. By taking their show on the road, the Senate is taking a concrete step toward letting a greater number of average Massachusetts residents feel like they are taking part in the policy-making process.