Given less time, Massachusetts lawmakers may actually do more

''Idle hands make light work,'' cautions the old adage. This is especially true within Massachusetts lawmaking circles, where heavy lifting is more the exception than the rule.

As well-intentioned as Bay State senators and representatives may be, they have little to show for their 1984 efforts so far. While it is unrealistic to expect passage of a lot of laws during the first few weeks of a legislative session, the accomplishments so far are not impressive.

The legislature - well into its third month - has passed only three measures, none even marginally controversial, in both lawmaking chambers.

To date, gatherings in the Senate and the House have been brief and generally informal, involving little more than routine business. This situation stems partially from a lack of bills, which are barely trickling out of legislative committees.

Although slow-paced beginnings for legislative sessions are not new, especially in recent years, rarely have legislators had so little to show their constituents. At the same time in the 1974 legislative session, for instance, 42 measures had made it through the two legislative chambers to be signed into law.

That year, the session wound up on Aug. 2. By contrast, last year the lawmaking sitting stretched over the entire 12 months - from January to January - and was dissolved by the calendar rather than by a completed workload. Such has been the case for the past three sessions.

Each of these year-long sessions could have ended months earlier if the legislative leadership had any interest in ringing down the curtain. But that would have required lawmakers to stick to business and omit the several long periods of virtual inactivity when lawmakers did little more than go through the formality of meeting a couple times a week to satisfy constitutional requirements.

While Massachusetts senators and representatives sauntered through much of 1981, '82, and '83, legislatures in all but a handful of other states completed their work and went home months earlier, usually by late spring or midsummer. Nearly half the states must get on with their lawmaking duties; their state constitutions restrict the number of days they can meet or receive expense allowances.

Obviously, there is little enthusiasm among Massachusetts lawmakers for such an arrangement. Yet, in the interest of a more efficient legislative process, some sort of deadline may be in order, the Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation, Citizens for Limited Taxation, and others suggest.

Several proposals to limit annual legislative sittings to six or seven months are being pushed for lawmaker consideration later this spring at a joint Senate-House state constitutional convention. But for reasons more political than practical, lawmakers are not likely to give the amendment serious consideration, even if it finds a place on the agenda.

Much could depend on whether its sponsors, including former state Rep. Mary B. Newman (R) of Cambridge, are able to rally support for the idea within legislative ranks.

The measure, filed by Rep. Thomas Brownell (D) of Quincy, would require the legislature to wrap up its work by the Wednesday after July 1.

''We seem to do things better under pressure than when we just meander along, '' says the Quincy legislator, stating his ''unqualified support for a limited session.''

Under the proposed amendment, all pending legislation would be automatically rejected after the deadline. There's one exception: proposals to amend the constitution that had been introduced through initiative petition. A constitutional amendment - if not acted on by the legislature - would be considered to have passed. Then it would be advanced for approval by the next legislature, or cleared for voter ratification.

Boosters of the limited session contend it would create no more of a logjam at session's end than is currently the case. They say it would make better use of lawmakers' time and spread the work load more evenly between January and June.

Under an open-ended setup, there's no incentive to come to grips with various matters, particularly the controversial ones. Then, in the final few days, a flurry of legislation is brought up with no advance notice and hustled through, frequently without a whisper of debate.

But the proposed constitutional change does have emergency provisions. If a matter requiring immediate legislative attention should arise, the governor could call the senators and representatives back for a special sitting. Similarly, a majority of the members in the two chambers could convene a session during the second half of the year.

Shorter sessions are not impossible. Since 1961, when adjournment came on May 27, the annual sitting has ended before Aug. 1 six times - 1962, '64, '68, '72, '78, and '80.

A six-month session would make it possible for many more people - including those with business and professional responsibilities back home - to serve in the legislature, Mrs. Newman suggests. If nothing else, such a reform could broaden the Senate-House membership, now increasingly dominated by self-professed full-time legislators.

Certainly, a compelling case can be made for lawmakers to spend more time in their districts. And more important, legislators would be less dependant on their state salaries and per diem allowances.

Larger, more populous, and no less problem-fraught states such as New York, Illinois, Florida, and Texas consistently get along with shorter legislative sittings. Why can't the commonwealth?

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