Eliminating those legislative `study panels' that skirt hot topics

WHEN an issue is politically too hot to handle, or perhaps too complex to come to grips with, Massachusetts lawmakers often ``send it to a study'' and go on to other matters. While the system isn't unique to the commonwealth, Bay State legislators appear to be looking increasingly to special commissions or committees to help provide direction in critical areas of concern.

Last year alone at least 14 such study panels were created, dealing with everything from tax reform to divorce to the Christopher Columbus Quincentennial.

Some panels are created quite genuinely to explore potential solutions to major challenges facing the commonwealth. Others, however, are poor excuses for doing nothing and simply a means of buying time in hopes the problem will lessen or somehow take care of itself.

Some of these studies never actually get off the ground. Most receive funding, however, but carry out their tasks with varying degrees of dispatch and success.

Study commissions are composed of not only senators and representatives but outsiders, usually appointed by the governor. Study committees are special task forces made up entirely of state lawmakers. Few of these panels are given deadlines; those that are rarely have difficulty getting more time and money.

Thus, it is not unusual for a study group to drag on year after year, often with little to show for its efforts -- not even a brief progress report.

The days of such phantom legislative commissions and committees, however, may be finally nearing an end.

A modest and long-overdue step in that direction, initiated by House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett, has brought ``goodbye'' notices to a dozen special commissions -- one in existence, at least in name, since 1968.

Gone are special panels established to focus on compulsory motor-vehicle insurance, the privatization of state services, charitable giving, and sanitary landfills. Most had long since completed their work and were marking time.

With their departure, about $500,000 in unex- pended funds, some of it appropriated several years ago, now can be used to finance other state activities.

Speaker Keverian devoted considerable time evaluating the continued need of various special legislative commissions and committees. But there is some question as to whether he went far enough. Several dozen special study groups are still around, and 39 of them have in recent weeks been revived or extended at least through June 1986.

Several, like the Joint Commission on Tax Reform, which was created last year, have new House chairmen. Many are Keverian loyalists whose support helped him wrest the speakership from former Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn.

Rep. Charles F. Flaherty (D) of Cambridge, who will head the panel charged with recommending ways to achieve a more equitable state and local tax structure, is a former House chairman of the Legislative Taxation Committee. It is probably no coincidence that he now is the House Democratic floor leader and Keverian's top deputy.

Another close Keverian ally, Rep. Kevin P. Blanchette (D) of Lawrence, the House chairman of the Legislative Committee on Public Service, will lead three special study panels.

But to his credit, Keverian also left in place or moved into new chairmanships several lawmakers who backed his predecessor, including Rep. Roger R. Goyette (D) of New Bedford and Rep. Michael F. Flaherty (D) of Boston.

The speaker considered the interests and talents of members of the opposition party as well. Five Republicans House members were chosen to head study teams: Forrester A. Clark Jr. of Hamilton; Barbara Gray of Framingham; Jonathan L. Healy of Charlemont; John MacGovern of Harvard; and Mary Jeanette Murray of Cohasset.

Of course, the changes in chairmanships will not guarantee that studies will move more expeditiously and competently. The next step for the speaker is to make the special panels more accountable for their action or inaction.

What is needed is fewer and better studies -- not just more dust collectors for Beacon Hill book shelves.

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