Complex bills deserve better treatment than 11th-hour shove

EVERY year Massachusetts lawmakers pass some statutes that many of them know little or nothing about. And last year was no exception. Of the 750-plus laws enacted during the 12 months that ended Jan. 5 only a couple of dozen were particularly complex. But don't ask senators or representatives to explain in depth what they voted for. You might embarrass them.

So many proposals are rushed through the legislature, especially in the final weeks, that probably no more than a handful of the members in either chamber are totally aware of everything taken up.

Too often lawmakers rely on their party floor leaders to tell them how they should vote. In some instances, however, such advice may not be in the best interest of either the legislator or constituents.

Even legislative leaders sometimes take their voting cues, especially on complex and controversial matters, from committee chairmen, colleagues, or others of trust supposedly more familiar with the specifics of a proposal.

Lawmakers need more than a few minutes to acquaint themselves with the fine print of bills, including time for to assess a proposal's potential effects on the humble taxpayer.

Legislation involving big-spending or future-funding obligations should not be hustled through at the end of a session, when the pressure of political expediency tends to limit opportunities for debate. Yet rarely do those in control of legislative machinery recognize that something might be too complex or too costly to be ground through in the final often frantic days.

The universal health-care measure last session is a good case in point. And to his credit House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett withstood pressure from various directions, including the Senate leadership and state's executive branch, and said ``no'' to what might have been little more than a rubber-stamping of the bill.

As desirable as it might be to provide adequate, affordable health insurance for every resident, including some 600,000 now without such coverage, the measure that breezed through the Senate Dec. 21 may not be what is needed. Despite all the work that Senate Ways and Means chairman Patricia McGovern (D) of Lawrence put into the measure and the broad coalition she helped rally behind it, the legislation left many questions unanswered.

These include: What would it cost? How would it affect small businesses and others whose employees have no health-insurance coverage? There is much to suggest that once the program was operational, which was to be in 1992, the annual price tag would have been more than the projected $1.6 billion.

The figures thrown around during the legislation's whistle stop in the Senate were little better than rough estimates, perhaps based mostly on wishful thinking on the part of those determined to gain the measure's approval.

Unlike some of their Senate colleagues, the House members, including Mr. Keverian, are in no hurry to pass something neither the state nor its taxpayers and business community might be able to afford.

If the legislation is as good as its backers, including Gov. Michael Dukakis and Senator McGovern, seem to feel it is, the House, after analyzing it, should come to that conclusion, too, probably by early spring. It just might be that the Keverian-led chamber will come up with something better not only in health-insurance coverage but also in hospital cost containment.

Although Governor Dukakis has to be disappointed about the legislation's failure to gain passage before the 1987 lawmaking curtain came down, he can hardly blame the Speaker, or anyone else.

Certainly it was the governor's intent to ride into the Feb. 8 Democratic Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 16 New Hampshire primary on the wings of the legislation. Now, instead of heralding his leadership in seeing to it that Massachusetts had the first universal health-care law in the nation, it is doubtful how much campaign mileage Dukakis can gain from the proposal.

Keverian, while refusing to be stampeded, has promised to give such legislation early attention this year. Yet he has not committed his chamber to the legislation the governor refiled Jan. 6. Nor will he agree to a specific deadline. The issue of comprehensive health-care insurance is too important to be rushed into law to accommodate anyone's campaign calendar.

Even if the legislative assembly line may be a bit slower than some politicians would like, the extra weeks it might take to come up with the best possible measure could be time well spent.

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