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Towards democracy at State House

By Eric Weltman / Guest Columnist
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

In 1776, the slogan, "No taxation without representation," was the inspiration for a new nation to throw off the shackles of British monarchy. Massachusetts is known as the cradle of democracy for its vital role in that revolution.

Today, Massachusetts is facing a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. Difficult decisions lie ahead, including possible cuts in education and other vital programs. More than ever, it's essential that we return to the "Spirit of 1776" notion that everyone should be fairly represented.

Belmont's representative, Anne Paulsen, carried on the Spirit of 1776 by tacking a "Statement of Principles" to the chamber door of the Massachusetts House of Representatives last Dec. 19, along with several other representatives. In summary: 1. The citizens are not being fully represented. 2. Legislation that has broad support should be brought before the House for debate and a vote. 3. Members should have the right to vote according to their best judgment without fear of punishment. 4. Assignments to committees and commissions should be based on members' talent, interest and experience.

Why are these principles controversial? Because they address House Speaker Finneran's power. Rep. Paulsen voted against Finneran for Speaker - one of only 17 representatives to vote for Byron Rushing, and one of his original supporters in challenging Finneran. Finneran's challengers in the past have faced reprisals from Finneran such as assignments to inappropriate committees and killing bills that they file - which Finneran does with impunity under the current House rules. The next few weeks will determine if that situation continues or if the Spirit of 1776 prevails in letting the people of Massachusetts have full representation.

One of the first decisions that will be made by the House of Representatives is the adoption of the rules under which it will operate. Good rules will give representatives the opportunity to truly represent the people in their districts. Bad rules will allow all the important decisions to be made behind the Speaker's closed doors.

In recent years, bills relating to affordable housing, education, and other important issues have often been shuffled off to "graveyard" committees that never actually meet, effectively killing bills that enjoy popular support. Bad rules work against openness and progress.

For example, a bill furthering homosexual rights passed the Massachusetts Senate three times in recent years. Each time, Finneran sent it to a graveyard committee, and representatives never voted on it. Finneran opposes gay rights, and despite the popular support of these bills in the electorate and in the Senate, the House has not had a gay rights vote at all.

Paulsen and others in the House are introducing a package of rules reforms this week. The proposals include ways to release bills from dead-end committees, a limit on the number of terms the Speaker of the House can serve, and several other reforms.

New House rules should be adopted only after committee assignments and the lucrative chairmanships have been assigned by the Speaker. Only then will the financial conflict of interest be minimized; members will be free to vote for fair rules without costing themselves important committee assignments.

Many of the reforms are supported by both Republicans and Democrats. This is as it should be: democracy is a nonpartisan issue. Conservatives, moderates and progressives all have a stake in the decisions that will be made on Beacon Hill this year, and everyone's voice deserves to be heard in those decisions.

This article was written by Eric Weltman, organizing director for Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), Dennis Burke, executive director of CPPAX, and Jesse Gordon, CPPAX's media liaison. They can be reached at 617-426-3040, or www.cppax.org.

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