PROVINCETOWN — State Rep. Sarah Peake won’t support rule changes being urged by a statewide activist movement as a way to bring more transparency to Beacon Hill.
The measures would only benefit the Republicans, said the Provincetown Democrat, who has represented the Fourth Barnstable District since 2007 and has long been a member of the House leadership team.
“It would give them the power to slow things down and exercise influence beyond the small numbers they represent in the Massachusetts legislature,” Peake said. “I will always support rules that strengthen the power of the majority while we have a Democratic majority.”
The grassroots group Act on Mass launched the transparency initiative statewide in late fall. So far, they have organized meetings between 60 state representatives and their constituents. The group is focusing on the House because its rules have made it less transparent than the state Senate.
Some Outer Cape constituents met with Peake via Zoom last Thursday to urge tweaks to rules that dictate, among other things, how much the public can know about the progress and fate of bills as they travel through committees.
Where Laws Go to Die
Many of those bills never make it out of committee to a vote by the full legislature, and the public frequently doesn’t know why. An example is the so-called Healthy Youth Act, which would require Massachusetts schools to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education, including discussion of consent and LGBTQ material. Parents would have the right to opt out for their children.
The Senate passed the bill in January 2020. It then went to the House, where it has died in past sessions. This time, the bill failed to make it out of the Committee on Health Financing as time ran out in the 191st legislative session. Finding even that information wasn’t an easy task.
The 192nd legislative session is just beginning, and rules are now being set. Constituents lobbied for Peake’s support on three rule changes: to require all votes and testimony that take place in committee to be publicly disclosed; to allow 72 hours between a bill’s release and a final vote of the House, instead of the current 24 hours; and to lower the number of representatives required to promote a recorded roll-call vote on a bill from 16 to 8.
Though the press was not invited to last week’s Zoom conversation, Peake later gave her reaction to the suggested transparency measures during a phone interview.
She called the suggested increase to 72 hours for bill review prior to a vote unnecessary. “I don’t think we should slow things down for the slowest readers,” she said.
Peake did commit to speaking to the House leadership about making committee action publicly available, but she stopped short of endorsing the measure. The committees’ public hearings are already broadcast live and taped for later watching, she said. The votes themselves may be taken at the end of those hearings or sometimes via email. Results of the votes can be obtained from the clerk. Making testimony available would be a slow and costly process.
“The House hearing on the police reform bill had 600 pieces of written testimony,” Peake said. “Scanning it in, who does that? Where do they post it? With existing staff, if we take them off the research to scan documents, there will be less bills that come to the floor.”
Peake also opposed lowering the number of representatives needed to prompt a roll-call vote from 16 to 8.
“If you can’t find 15 colleagues to stand with you for a roll-call vote, that’s an indication that it’s a bad idea,” she said. More roll calls would slow action and mean fewer bills would get passed, she asserted.
Wellfleet resident Laura Gazzano, who was on the Zoom call with Peake, said later that some states have much lower triggers than eight members for roll-call votes. In some cases, all it takes is one representative, she said.
“Transparency is the foundation of all successful relationships,” Gazzano said. “She had lots of reasons why it was just fine and dandy the way it was. It was frustrating to me.”
Increasing the time between a bill’s release and the final vote to at least 72 hours would benefit the public, Gazzano said. “As constituents, we were thinking it allows us to access those bills and advocate for them or oppose them,” she said.
Kathryn Smith, also of Wellfleet, expressed disappointment about the discussion with Peake. “Her constituents came to her and told her this was something they wanted to happen, and rather than listen to us with an open heart and mind, she shut us down at the first chance she got,” Smith said. “I had really hoped that, even if she didn’t agree with the amendments, she would have been more willing to listen to our side.”
Meanwhile, Lisa Bergeron had some positive comments on the meeting. “Although Rep. Peake did not support our request for the three rule changes, she did give detailed explanations why she didn’t feel the changes were needed,” Bergeron said. “She also walked us through some of her experiences as committee chair and explained a little bit about how things work behind the scenes.”
Peake questioned the transparency of Act on Mass. “I went to look them up, and they are not registered as lobbyists, have not filed any returns to see who their donors are,” she told the Independent. Act on Mass is a 501(c)(4) organization, and, as such, doesn’t have to publicly disclose donors. “Organizations file as 501(c)(4) because they have the weakest disclosure requirements,” Peake added.
Ryan Daulton, campaign manager for Act on Mass, said Peake was “mischaracterizing” organizations registered as 501(c)(4)s and implying that the group is hiding something. “We are a small organization and are entirely funded by small grassroots donors and labor union donations,” he said. “We would never take a dollar from corporations.”
The 501(c)(4) designation applies to groups that are advocacy and social welfare organizations. Unlike other nonprofits, they are allowed to lobby the legislature for the causes they promote.
“We have about 25 people running the campaign, and they are mostly volunteers,” Daulton said.