2017 in the House: Midterm Review

A guide to the Mid-session Scorecard (View Spreadsheet here, website here) -- All numbers refer to the spreadsheet.

The 190th legislative did not have a very auspicious start.

Both House and Senate fast-tracked a bill to give pay increases to the Senate President, Speaker of the House, judges, the governor, and other constitutional officers; raise stipends to appointed committee chairs and select other legislative leaders; and increase the number of legislators eligible for stipends (1h).

Here at Progressive Mass, we understand that it is important that elected officials be paid well for the work that they do (especially so that they don’t seek more lucrative work that leads to a host of conflicts of interest), but the bill reflected the endemic problems of Beacon Hill.

  • It lacked any semblance of deliberative, democratic process, and its ultimate effect was to centralize power further in Leadership, creating a more hierarchical and less democratic Legislature.
  • It also left out woefully underpaid staffers from the pay increase---and the countless workers across the Commonwealth facing stagnant and sub-livable wages. In short, we deserve better from our Legislature.

It’s unfortunate that, in the House, Republicans tend to be the only ones calling for transparency and a more democratic process (Would they if they were in control? Probably not). Republicans pushed an amendment at the start of the session requiring committee roll call votes be published online. This would help citizens better hold their elected officials accountable. Accordingly, it was voted down by the Democratic majority (2h).

Apart from the restoration of line-item-vetoed budget programs and earmarks (most of which were worthwhile), the pay raise remains the only time the Democrats of the Legislature used their overwhelming supermajority to override Governor Baker’s veto.

That budget also left much to be desired, as it largely continued the austerity that hamstrings our ability to invest in our future:

Budget season in the House tends to follow a particular script. Amendments from progressive representati ves proposing new revenue or creative new ideas will be withdrawn, often without floor debate. Amendments from Republicans will be debated on the floor and then “sent to further study,” i.e., tabled indefinitely. And the leadership will decide behind closed doors which line item increases will get into the final budget, bundling them into large, omnibus amendments. Votes, including that on the final budget, will mostly be either party-line or (nearly) unanimous (with occasional splits in the Republican caucus or defections from the likes of Colleen Garry of Dracut or James Dwyer of Weymouth on the Democratic side).

The amendments sent to study (studies that will never happen -- and shouldn’t) sought to stymy the state’s ability to collect revenue (3h, 4h) or prevent people from accessing the benefits that they need and deserve (5h, 6h).

Later in the spring of 2017, the Fair Share amendment (or “millionaire’s tax”) secured its place on the November 2018 ballot, as both houses overwhelmingly voted to support it in its second Constitutional Convention (7h). The Fair Share amendment, which would impose a 4% surtax on income above $1 million and allocate the revenue to a designated education and transportation fund, is an important start to counteracting the chronic underinvestment described above.

Speaking of ballot initiatives, the Legislature decided to rewrite Question 4, the marijuana legalization ballot initiative that passed in 2016. The House bill, which violated the spirit of what citizens had voted for, would have more than doubled the tax on marijuana, creating the conditions for black market to flourish; eliminated the ability of voters to have a direct say over local marijuana policy; and created new law enforcement agencies with broad and poorly defined powers. Important racial equity provisions were added via the amendment process (9h), but did not counter the fundamentally flawed nature of the bill. In addition to overwhelmingly passing this bill (10h), the House voted down an amendment to make sure that the funds from the bill don’t end up flowing to the cities and towns that ban marijuana (8h).

On the health care front, both the House and Senate beat back a terrible proposal from Governor Baker to drop more than 100,000 individuals from MassHealth and impose other restrictions on coverage (13h), as well as his proposals to freeze employer contributions to the unemployment insurance trust fund (12h). Despite Baker’s claims to moderation, his proposals would make his Republican colleagues in Washington proud. Thankfully, they failed last year, but we must be vigilant because Baker has not given up hope of passing it.

The House had strong bipartisan support for committing Massachusetts to the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement (14h) and guaranteeing access to birth control without copay (15h) -- although it’s important to note that Massachusetts is already committed to the Paris goals by way of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

Criminal justice reform dominated the rest of 2017. As is often the case with the budget, many Democratic amendments were withdrawn or bundled and rewritten. Republican amendments were often sent to further study (which, given how bad they are, is better than passage). Democrats thankfully dispensed with Republican amendments to undermine the recent Lunn court ruling on immigrants’ rights (16h), double down on a punitive approach to the opioid epidemic (17h, 23h), and violate individual privacy rights by expanding state surveillance (18h).

Some good amendments did pass. The House voted to increase the threshold at which larceny gets prosecuted as larceny from the current $250 to $1,000 (lower than the Senate bill, but better than the status quo) (20h, 22h). Massachusetts, despite our liberal reputation, has the third lowest such threshold in the country. The House also voted to strengthen to strengthen juvenile justice reforms (18h).

Not every roll call vote involved in improving the bill or fending off efforts to weaken it. The House also voted overwhelmingly to expand the witness intimidation statute to cover more people and transactions and have higher penalties, opening up possibilities for police and prosecutorial abuse given the lack of requirement for an empirical foundation for such charges (21s).

Note: If legislators were not present for a vote but submitted a letter to the Clerk about how they would have voted, we recorded the intended vote in the scorecard. Relevant references here are available upon request. If a legislator was absent but did not make his/her intent clear, that absence was scored equal to a vote against the progressive position.

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