February 8, 2017

Senate adds transparency to agenda in light of shady pot law maneuver

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Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House

BOSTON — Pro-marijuana activists who were taken by surprise when the Senate passed a bill delaying implementation of retail pot sales would receive advance warning should the Senate seek a repeat during a future “informal” session.

As part of the Senate rules package (S.8) adopted last week, the Senate required that agendas for informal sessions be made available to the public one day ahead of the start of the session except when informals are held on consecutive days.

Open meeting laws already demand that city councils, boards of selectmen and boards governing state agencies publish their agendas in advance. Lawmakers in the House and Senate face no such requirement. The word agenda does not appear in the prior iteration of Senate rules.

The House and Senate print calendars for formal sessions, which list bills that could come up for votes, but informal sessions — when any one member can prevent a bill from advancing — have long been conducted by both branches without publicly available agendas.

Informal sessions are usually held biweekly and are sparsely attended. They feature action on non-controversial, local bills but other bills can and do emerge for advancement. Most bills can be advanced and enacted in informal sessions as long as no member objects.

Bills emerging from committee are often introduced at informal sessions and the branches also field bills that arrive from the other chamber.

No members objected on Dec. 28 to a Sen. Jason Lewis bill delaying the retail sale of marijuana that was rushed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk — where it was later signed into law. The move surprised marijuana proponents who had achieved victory at the November ballot.

Agendas for informal sessions must be made available to the public by May 31, according an amendment to the rules package sponsored by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. It was approved unanimously.

“We’re basically saying in the informal that the agenda will be posted a day in advance,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who was chairman of the temporary Rules Committee and co-sponsored Tarr’s agenda amendment. “I think it’s a very reasonable transparency issue.”

Senate Democrats defeated efforts to make it easier for a small group of members to alter amendment deadlines for major bills or block the Senate from meeting after midnight — a relatively rare occurrence.

Montigny said the aim of the new rules package is to make it easier for the public to follow the legislative process in the Senate chamber.

“Ultimately they’re about transparency and good government and how we present the very complex and sometimes confusing debate to the public,” Montigny said. “Think about if you watched the rostrum and the debate and didn’t understand those rules. It’s confusing.”

The new Senate rules also allow electronic voting, which has long been the method the House uses to conduct roll calls. Senators, who will soon begin holding sessions in the Gardner Auditorium while renovations are made to their chamber, have long announced their roll call votes one at a time vocally.

Montigny said he was proud of a new provision that allows for a court officer to vote on behalf of a member who is pregnant or caring for a child in the building. Senators have previously been permitted to vote through a court officer because of a disability.

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