Another try at clipping the wings of Bay State Legislature's leadership

Democracy in the Massachusetts Legislature is almost as thin as within the army of a banana republic. Those who fail to show unswerving allegience to the top brass - or leadership as it is officially known - don't get very far and frequently pay dearly for their attempted independence.

Punishment for those ignoring the marching orders of the Senate president and House speaker may not be as common as some critics of Legislature would have it appear. But the fact remains that the leadership in both chambers uses intimidation of one kind or other - as it has over the years - to get the support it wants.

Clearly the problem is much deeper than the reign of Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston and House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn. They are only taking full advantage of the clout vested in them by legislative rules. It is simply a case of too much power in the hands of too few.

Impressive political timidity on the part of many state legislators makes it unrealistic to expect them to lift a finger to bring changes, even if they might strengthen their lawmaking role.

Without support from inside the Legislature, those bent on a less-tightly controlled power structure emphasizing merit rather than other considerations may have little choice but to turn the matter over to voters.

That is what the current rules change initiative petition drive is all about.

While prospects for collecting the required 61,805 voter signatures before the Nov. 23 deadline seem bright, it is uncertain whether the reform plan will reach the November 1984 ballot. Much to the delight of Messrs. Bulger and McGee, state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti has questioned whether the matter is appropriate for the initiative route.

The issue will likely be resolved later this fall by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court is scheduled to hear the matter in November. Pending its ruling, the court is permitting boosters of the rules change to circulate their petitions. At issue before the state high court is not the merits of the proposed legislative reform, but whether under the state constitution it is an issue only lawmakers themselves can decide.

The initiative's advocates - including Citizens for Participation in Political Action, Common Cause, Citizens for Limited Taxation, the League of Women Voters, the Republican State Committee, Americans for Democratic Action, and others - say they are simply seeking a law, something clearly within the bounds of the initiative process.

Leaders of the drive, whose immediate goal is getting 100,000 signatures, have to be a bit apprehensive concerning the high court decision. Outwardly, however, they are confident. They cite a 1978 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling involving an initiative proposal on another subject. At that time the justices held that any measure voters could file individually could properly be the subject for an initiative petition.

If the current proposal makes the ballot, few doubt it would be approved: The electorate often holds the state legislature in none-too-high esteem. This despite the fact voters may be perfectly content with their individual senators and representatives.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that the initiative's sponsors face is explaining what their complex measure is all about. A better course might have been for them to divide it into three parts, each dealing with a different facet of the goal. But it is too late for that, and voters must deal with a single initiative, some parts of which certainly could be made more easily understood, and hence more appealing.

One provision that could entice voters proposes slashing the whopping salaries legislative leaders have gotten since last January. This includes the nearly $30,000-a-year raise for Senate president and House speaker.

At their current $65,000-a-year salary, Bulger and McGee are the highest-paid state legislators in the nation. In California, for example, all 120 legislators , including speaker and Senate president, receive $28,000 a year - $2,000 a year less than rank-and-file Massachusetts lawmakers are paid.

Instead of dropping the Massachusetts Senate and House presiding officers back to their former $37,000 level, something that would be easy to justify, the initiative would set their compensation at $45,000, or 50 percent above lawmakers' base pay. Senate and House committee chairmen, who now receive $37, 500 - one-third more than the base salary - would get $31,000 a year.

Perhaps more significant than the provision on pay is one that provides a fairer means of choosing committee members and chairmen. Rather than relying on the two powerful presiding officers to determine who serves on and chairs a committee, the initiative would turn the selection process over to a seven-member steering and policy committee elected by the party's caucus. The committee's appointments would be subject to ratification by the caucus's full membership. The minority party would use the same mechanism to select minority party committee members.

Under this method, no longer could any speaker or Senate president pass out choice committee assignments to friends and loyalists without respect for leadership skills or experience in the particular area of specialization, such as banking or human services.

Equally significant in terms of improving the lawmaking machinery are several other changes. One would require that senators and representatives receive advance notice on bills that are coming up for debate. Another would require a formal committee vote on decisions to report bills to the House or Senate floor. The all-too-familiar practice of chairmen slipping things out with stamps of approval or keeping matters bottled up for months or even the full legislative year, would end.

These could substantially reduce the power of the House speaker and Senate president to reward friends and favorite lobbyists or punish lawmakers for stepping out of line.

The time has come to free legislators from the possibility of having a proposal killed by, or held captive of, the power structure should he or she displease the chamber's ringmaster.

Is that any way to run a legislature? You bet it isn't.

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