State legislators never cross finish line in marathon lawmaking session

Massachusetts has many distinctions, but few are less impressive than the state's drawn-out legislative sessions. While lawmakers in most other states wound up their 1983 sittings long ago, senators and representatives here did not call it quits until Dec. 10. And technically they are still at it, although the remaining gatherings will be informal, and thus sparsely attended.

Despite the all-too-familiar flurry of activity during the waning days (indeed, hours and minutes) of the session, the legislators left behind a mound of unfinished business.

Some of these measures, such as the proposed bonding authorization for various state construction projects, could have made it if the two lawmaking chambers, particularly their leaderships, had not been in such a hurry to wrap up the session.

Within that capital outlay budget, as it is called, was funding for federal court-ordered improvements in the commonwealth's homes for the retarded. Lawmakers' failure to attend to this matter could cost the commonwealth up to $ 32 million in matching federal funds.

Now, in light of a stern warning Dec. 12 by the US secretary of health and human services to come up with money for five institutions by Jan. 3, legislators will have to come back to Beacon Hill to address the matter.

Also put on hold were a broad range of other proposed building projects around Massachusetts. Not everything within the $600 million bonding package is urgent, especially pork-barrel provisions added by individual senators and representatives to benefit their districts or please special interests.

But all was not lost. When it became evident the construction bonding package had little chance of making it, backers of one pet project, expansion of the Hynes Auditorium by the Massachusetts Convention Commission, moved fast to secure $100 million through another bill for transportation funding. The fact that Francis X. Joyce, executive director of the commission, is a former administrative assistant to Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston might have helped in this rescue.

Had legislative leaders been as concerned about the improvements in facilities for the retarded, similar help could have been provided.

What happened to the capital outlay package - and probably scores of other worthwhile legislation - could have been avoided if the senators and representatives had not dawdled through the year, especially during the summer and fall.

As is too frequently the case, most of the 700 measures enacted were hustled through during the final weeks, many in the final seconds of the 11th hour. This process led to many mistakes - political and otherwise - which could have been averted were the work pace more steady throughout the session.

The round-the-clock final sitting, including occasional bursts of activity during late-evening and wee-morning hours, was hardly something in which lawmakers or any resident of the commonwealth can take pride.

This session could be one of the most convincing arguments for certain legislative rules changes currently being pushed by a growing band of would-be reformers in the legislature.

Asking individual legislators to vote for measures which they have neither seen in type nor had a chance to study - especially redraft proposals that suddenly pop out of committee for action - is at best unfair to the senators or representatives involved.

Because of such practices, which appear to be the rule rather than the exception during the final days of a legislative session, it is questionable whether many Massachusetts lawmakers are fully acquainted with most of the measures they voted for.

On the surface, the just-ended legislative session was ''very productive,'' as House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn and Senator Bulger declared. But the number of major measures enacted was relatively small in comparison with some other years.

But there were some significant accomplishments - albeit few and far between. These include $196.6 million for subsidized housing for poor, elderly, and handicapped people; $600 million for various transportation and construction projects; and a $150 million annual increase from the state to the public employee pension fund.

These measures were among the dozens that won approval during the final hours.

Other major statutes approved this year are a record $7.3 billion fiscal 1984 state budget, including a $165 million increase for local aid; auto insurance reform embracing incentives for good drivers; mandatory reporting of child-abuse cases; statewide controls on condominium conversions; an employee's ''right to know'' about any hazardous materials in the work place; a $25 million hazardous-waste cleanup fund; $2 million in emergency aid for the homeless; and provisions for improved tax collections and enforcement, including a boost in the cigarette tax.

While these and several other measures were important and time-consuming, a lot more could have been done during the past 11 1/2 months.

What is needed is a greater commitment on the part of all legislators to get on with ''the people's business'' earlier in the year instead of procrastinating until the final few days, when there is little time for debate.

While bills are bound to come up at the last minute, as they have in all legislatures for years, the extent of the late-session logjam in Massachusetts is a disservice of increasing proportions to the state.

What is needed is a requirement to limit the number of matters that can be taken up at any daily session. To help make that work, committees such as Ways and Means, which now can keep bills bottled up for months while tinkering with them, ought to have a deadline.

In addition, many of the more complex proposals are approved in different forms by the Senate and House. These bills require compromise efforts in joint conference committees, and the sooner that process begins, the better the likelihood for ultimate passage.

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