Ending Beacon Hill's annual last-minute dash to legislative wire

IF Massachusetts lawmakers had a full decade to do a single year's work, it would probably take them that long, with much of the important business hustled along in the final weeks. While other state legislatures have long since wound up their 1985 sittings, senators and representatives here are still at work, and there is little to suggest that they'll be through before New Year's Eve. That's when the Massachusetts constitution steps in and shuts down the sitting, regardless what may still be hanging fire.

After more than 11 months, generously laced with vacations and short workweeks, and quite possibly a lot more thumb-twiddling than lawmakers would care to acknowledge, the end-of-the-session chase is under way. Bills that have been bottled up in committees or allowed to languish on Senate or House calendars are being trotted out, sometimes in new legislative garb, and rushed through as if the future of the commonwealth depended on them.

While this situation is hardly new, no one can can take pride in it, least of all Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston and House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett -- the two men who could do most to prevent such goings-on.

Other states, some larger than Massachusetts, have managed to complete their business in a lot less time.

Actually, rank-and-file Bay State legislators have little say in what comes before them, and when. But they do choose their leaders and could press them to speed things along.

To his credit, Speaker Keverian began his legislative reign last January by suggesting that this would be a short legislative year. That this is not the case has to be a source of disappointment to him.

Part of the problem this year was new chairmen on several key panels, including the pivotal Ways and Means Committees. And, as often happens, the House and Senate seemed to have quite different agendas.

Even when there is substantial agreement as to what measure should be taken up, it appears that the leaders in the two lawmaking branches are perhaps more interested in placing their special mark on it than getting it approved and moving on to something else.

Many of the decisions as to what goes into a measure, especially some of the more important legislation, comes from behind the scenes. If the presiding officers don't want a bill, it gets nowhere. Similarly, it is virtually impossible for anything to make it through either chamber without the support of the leadership.

As in other state legislatures, many key measures are more the fruits of conference committees from the two branches than from the members as a whole. These conference panels are appointed by the presiding officers and the minority leaders of each chamber. Only lawmakers of unquestioned political loyalty to those naming them are chosen for such special assignments.

Since conference committees hammer out much of the substance and language of important legislation, a better arrangement might be for the speaker and Senate president to name themselves and their floor leaders to such teams. In that way those leaders could hone their skills in the art of compromise.

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