Massachusetts legislators get big rewards for procrastination

MOST Bay Staters get no more than a month's vacation; many get only a few days - or none at all. But members of the Massachusetts Legislature really have it made. They manage to get at least a couple of months of relaxation through legislative recesses, collect their salaries of nearly $38,000 a year, and pick up a sizable amount of tax-exempt travel-expense money while, with few exceptions in recent years, stretching the annual session over a full 12 months. The 1987 legislature, now in recess, is expected to return to work in mid-September. Meanwhile two proposals for limiting annual sessions to six or seven months are pending on Beacon Hill. But there is as much likelihood of it gaining approval as there would be for a move to require senators and representatives to work for a dollar a day.

While the productivity of a legislature can hardly be judged on the basis of how many measures are acted on within any period of time, certainly a lot more could have been accomplished were there any sort of a deadline or sense of urgency.

If most other state legislatures can get their work done by late spring or even early summer, why can't Bay States senators and representatives take care of the people's business by early July, or Aug. 1 at the latest?

The main reason for dragging things out just might be concern that the folks back home would somehow get the idea their lawmakers are overpaid.

Quite possibly another reason why there is so little legislative interest in limiting the length of the annual session is the per diem travel allowance the senators and representatives collect for commuting to and from Beacon Hill. As long as the lawmakers are in session - even as they now are, on an informal basis - the members who go to the State House, if only for a few minutes a day, are entitled to this extra money.

Were the legislature to take a formal, 30-day recess, as permitted under the state constitution, it is questionable whether the per diem travel allowance would be available during that period.

That allowance, depending on how far a legislator lives from the State House, ranges from $5 to $50 a day. Those residing more than 50 miles from Beacon Hill have the added advantage of a $108 federal income tax deduction for each day the legislature is in session and they commute to work. This can amount to as much as $39,000.

Since the lawmakers themselves clearly have no intention of doing anything that might upset the deal they have, what may be needed is some action from the people through an initiative petition. Then only the backing of one-fourth the senators and representatives meeting in joint conventions of consecutive separately elected legislatures would be required to place on the statewide ballot a constitutional amendment limiting the length of legislative sessions.

The ability of the governor to call special sessions in emergencies would remain.

To get a session-limiting constitutional amendment on its way, the signature support of not less than 50,525 Massachusetts voters would be required. No more than one-fourth of them could come from any single county.

Contributing to the conspicuous lack of criticism of the slow legislative pace may be a concern among various self-styled good government groups that taking up this cause could alienate certain influential lawmakers and weaken prospects for favorable action on pet proposals of these potential outside reformers.

If only in the interest of saving tax dollars, the League of Women Voters, Citizens for Limited Taxation, Common Cause, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, and others might consider joining forces in support of a constitutional change to limit annual legislative sittings.

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