PROVINCETOWN — Despite its reputation as a progressive stronghold, Massachusetts has long trailed red and blue states alike when it comes to legislative transparency at the state level, particularly in the state House of Representatives.
On Feb. 1, the House unanimously adopted a rules package for the 2023-2024 legislative term. Each branch of the state legislature passes new rules every two years; contention over transparency and accountability play out in these sessions.
This year, the House codified the pandemic-era innovation of hybrid committee hearings, expanding access to the lawmaking process for constituents through remote participation. But it failed to address policies that advocates and journalists have cited as key hindrances to legislative accountability in the Bay State.
The House does not release full committee vote tallies, meaning that constituents cannot track their representatives’ positions on legislation until a roll call vote happens on the House floor.
During the rules hearing, an amendment to make committee votes public was rejected by a voice vote in 45 seconds. It was never debated.
That voice vote was “a perfect illustration of all that is wrong with the State House,” said Erin Leahy, executive director of Act on Mass, a Boston-based watchdog organization that spearheads the transparency campaign.
State Rep. Sarah K. Peake of Provincetown, who was second assistant majority leader under Speaker Ronald Mariano in 2021-2022, came out staunchly against public committee votes in 2021. During that year’s rules debate, the amendment was rejected on a roll-call vote.
Peake told the Independent then that the rules change would strengthen Republicans’ ability to “slow things down” and exercise disproportionate influence, that publishing all committee proceedings would strain legislative staff, and that constituents could “do the math” on committee votes to learn how she voted. The House did agree to publish “no” votes, although representatives can abstain or be absent from hearings.
Last Friday, Peake declined to clarify her stance on committee transparency. “What I said last session, that was last session,” she said. “So, it’s like turning the page. It’s like going from being a freshman to a sophomore.”
Making committee votes public, Peake said, “was an issue that didn’t come up” during this session.
As for the swiftness of the rejection, Peake said she couldn’t “second guess” the thinking of state Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, who sponsored the amendment.
Rep. Uyterhoeven, who represents the 27th Middlesex District in Somerville and founded Act on Mass before arriving on Beacon Hill, told the Independent that she had decided beforehand not to request a roll-call vote because she knew there was not enough support in the chamber. At least 16 representatives must ask for a floor debate and roll-call vote.
“It was clear that this was just not something people were ready for,” Uyterhoeven said.
Other proposed reforms include extending the time given to review legislation from 24 to 72 hours and reinstating term limits for the speaker, neither of which was debated this time.
“We’re talking really popular, no-brainer, good governance reforms,” Leahy said.
A legislative “report card” compiled by the civic engagement project Open States, last updated in 2015, gave Massachusetts an “F,” ranking it third to last among state legislatures on standards of data completeness, timeliness, and accessibility.
More recently, a January 2021 study from the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University investigated why climate action in Massachusetts had stalled. They found that, despite strong public support for pro-climate legislation in public hearings, most climate bills never reached the House floor and that powerful industry lobbies exerted tremendous influence over the legislature. The study’s first recommendation was “far greater transparency on committee and floor votes” as well as publicly broadcast and archived committee hearings and more rigorous recordkeeping on lobbying.
“The committee votes that determine the bulk of legislative outcomes in the state, beyond occurring in secret, also happen under tight control by legislative leadership,” the report said.
In the past two election cycles, Act on Mass has put a nonbinding question about whether the House should publish committee votes on ballots across the Commonwealth. In 2022, the ballot question received an average of 84 percent “yes” votes across 20 districts — including Peake’s 4th Barnstable District, where 84.7 percent of voters supported it.
But procedural issues don’t capture sustained voter attention.
“It’s not a sexy issue,” said Laurie Veninger, a leader of Indivisible Outer Cape, which organized a meeting with Peake about transparency in 2021. In advance of the ballot question on public committee votes last fall, the group talked to constituents in Provincetown to raise awareness. “Every single person I spoke to on the street was in favor of it,” Veninger said. “And maybe one or two knew that Sarah Peake was not.”
Veninger said she finds it frustrating that Peake has “dug in her heels” on this issue. “We know that she supports a lot of the same bills that her constituents support,” she said, “and we’re grateful for that. But if she does support them like she says she does, then she shouldn’t be afraid of making the votes public.
“She’s in a position now that she could actually make a difference and change transparency,” Veninger added, referring to Peake’s role in the “inner circle” of House leadership. “And yet she’s chosen not to.”
Peake was first elected in 2006 and defeated a rare primary challenge last year with nearly 90 percent of the vote. That challenger, Jack Stanton, made transparency a pillar of his campaign.
“The secrecy and the concentration of power in the hands of the Speaker actually prevent a lot of popular pieces of legislation from getting a fair shake,” Stanton said.
As the fourth-ranking member of the Democratic supermajority, Peake is “part of that leadership structure,” Stanton said.
Peake called the suggestion that rejecting transparency reforms was in the leadership’s rather than constituents’ interest “insulting.”
“Continuously since my first day in 2007, every vote I have taken, every bill I have supported, every constituent I have helped have all been guided and driven by my core value of always acting in the best interests of my constituents, the district, and the Commonwealth,” Peake said.
“The Outer Cape has never had this amount of legislative muscle on Beacon Hill,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands and serves as assistant majority whip. “That means our issues are at the table. I’m a big fan of transparency and accountability, but at the end of the day, I’m here to get things done.”
Cyr has long supported public committee votes, but “in the grand scheme of things, I’m uncertain how determinative they are in moving a certain issue,” he said.
“A dimension that gets lost is that this is about making our representative democracy actually work the way it was intended,” Leahy said. A lack of transparency disempowers not just constituents but rank-and-file representatives who fear going against leadership, she said.
“Everything is just in lockstep,” said Northeastern journalism Professor Dan Kennedy. “With the leadership as powerful as it is today, rank-and-file members who might be supportive of open government are reluctant” to say so publicly.
In the fall of 2020, Kennedy’s journalism students contacted every candidate for state legislative office and asked their stance on whether the legislature should remain exempt from the state’s public records law. The students, he said, “took every measure they possibly could” to get responses. But only 28 percent of candidates answered. “They just don’t want to go out on a limb and take a position that leadership doesn’t want them to take,” Kennedy said.
The Speaker controls committee chair appointments, staff budgets for representatives, and the flow of legislation on the floor. As of Tuesday, Speaker Mariano’s office had not responded to multiple requests for comment.
In previous sessions, the Republican caucus has voted in favor of public committee votes, increased time to review, and Speaker term limits during rules debates.
Transparency and rules changes, Rep. Uyterhoeven said, “are often framed as a political Republican issue rather than something that brings all stakeholders and parties together.”
By email, House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., who represents the 20th Middlesex District, confirmed his caucus’s support for making committee votes public.
The Senate does make its committee votes public and had term limits on the Senate president — until last week’s new rules package removed them. Cyr voted in favor of the rules change along with all but three of his Democratic colleagues.
“We in the Senate feel that we need to have maximal leverage in negotiations with the House and the governor,” Cyr said, adding he was “clear-eyed about the benefits of term limits.”
To the Independent, Peake emphasized that real transparency came from meaningful constituent engagement in the legislative process, such as attending or streaming committee hearings. She encouraged constituents to call and ask about her position on any issue.
“Looking at a vote in a vacuum is not productive,” Peake said. Bills evolve and make multiple stops throughout the committee process, but what matters is the final floor vote, she said.
“The focus of the advocates is doing a great disservice to the citizenry,” Peake said.
The enshrining of remote access to committee hearings, which increased citizen participation significantly during the pandemic, was a priority “for those of us who represent districts that are far-flung from the State House,” Peake said.
“I think it’s important to be critical of people in power and offer praise when they do things that are praiseworthy,” Leahy said. Hybrid committee hearings, she said, were “a huge accessibility win for everyday folks to be able to testify about bills that affect their lives.”
While committee hearings will now be publicly available on the State House website, committee votes themselves will remain private.