Rules To Work By, and Newcomers Throwing Down — Weekly Roundup of Beacon Hill

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Recap and analysis of the week in state government

By Matt Murphy

Young, intimidated and afraid is an apt description for many high school freshmen, but not the freshman class of legislators on Beacon Hill.

The newbies who still don’t have office space or proper desks made their presence known this week as society’s rule makers contemplated what rules they should have to follow themselves.

The House and Senate gathered in full for the first time since new legislators were sworn in early in January to debate House and Senate rules and rules that govern how the two will interact over the next two years.

By and large, few changes were made.

But that didn’t stop state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa (D-Northampton) from arguing in her first floor speech for a more transparent legislative process where written committee testimony is readily available to members and the public.

Nor did it stop state Representative Maria Robinson (D-Framingham) from making the case for why lawmakers deserve 72 hours to review a bill before they vote on it. “I get it, people have said a maiden speech is meant to be on something important. This is important,” Robinson said.

Many others bucked leadership to support the failed attempt by state Representative John Rogers (D-Norwood) and 42 other members, including 13 Democrats, to reinstate term limits on the speakership. House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and the Democrats he leads four years ago eliminated term limits to allow DeLeo to continue to serve without a lame-duck sign hanging around his neck. Now that the rules debate is over, and the recorded votes taken to show who was with leadership and who was not, DeLeo is poised to dole out leadership and committee assignments.

None of the rules reformers prevailed in their chosen cause, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. State Representative Patrick Kearney (D-Scituate) took on a thorny issue in his first appearance at the House microphone.

Less than a year removed from an emotional debate in the House over sexual harassment policy and the use of non-disclosure agreements, Kearney proposed to ban non-disclosure agreements outright and scrap the House’s rule that allows their use only if requested by a victim.

The freshman Democrat was forcefully shut down by more veteran members who called his amendment “well-intentioned,” but ill-conceived, and he won just five votes, including his own, for the rule change.

State Senator Diana DiZoglio (D-Methuen) knew exactly what Kearney was up against, because last year she took to the House floor as a state representative arguing for a ban on non-disclosure agreements. Freshman Rep. Patrick Kearney used his maiden speech Wednesday to urge an outright ban on non-disclosure agreements with legislative personnel, an initiative which failed in the House but prevailed unanimously in the Senate the next day. [Photo: House Broadcast Service via SHNS]

Freshman Rep. Patrick Kearney used his maiden speech Wednesday to urge an outright ban on non-disclosure agreements with legislative personnel, an initiative which failed in the House but prevailed unanimously in the Senate the next day. [Photo: House Broadcast Service via SHNS]

Now working across the third floor in the Senate, DiZoglio had better luck and unanimously had her ban approved by her colleagues with zero debate or pushback. Freshman state Senator Rebecca Rausch (D-Needham) also successfully strengthened the Senate’s anti-harassment and training policy.

The House and Senate rules are now done, and the joint rules head to conference committee where issues of access to public records could become a point of contention. Additionally, one senior Senate staffer said the person did not expect the House’s move to eliminate the biennial July 17 deadline for conference committee appointments to become a point of too much friction.

While the rules won’t usher in a sea change on Beacon Hill, the signs of a new energy in both branches were apparent as gendered pronouns were dropped from the rules and spirited debate, rather than resignation, permeated the building.

The MBTA was also just following rules, or at least guidelines, this week when it rolled out a proposal to increase bus, subway, and rail fares by an average of 6.3 percent.

In addition to being necessary to avoid an operating deficit of nearly $75 million, the periodic fare adjustment is in keeping, the T and Governor Charlie Baker said, with the guardrails erected by the Legislature.

The Legislature put into law limits on fare hikes, keeping them to no more than 7 percent and no more frequent than every two years. But by keeping to a predictable schedule, officials say, riders won’t ever see the types of steep increases that were required when policymakers shied away from hikes until they were unavoidable.

The question, however, is still whether the service is worth more money. And some riders and lawmakers don’t think so.

“With the system continuing to suffer from service and reliability issues, a fare increase would not only be unfair to riders, but it would also drive away many potential users and current users from the system, worsening traffic on our roads and driving increased emissions, thereby subverting the mission of public transit,” state Senator Nick Collins (D-South Boston) said.

Speaking of worsening traffic, the work-day commute got a little more congested on Monday when thousands of federal workers returned to the office after a month-long hiatus caused by the federal government shutdown.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Cambridge) met with workers from the Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Services, and Department of Housing and Urban Development at the JFK Federal Building in Boston to talk with them about the impacts of the shutdown and to publicly urge President Donald Trump to stop using workers as “political pawns” to get a border wall built.

One EPA engineer and the president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees Steve Calder said one thing the state should be thinking about doing before the next shutdown, which could come as soon as Febreuary 15, is to make sure federal workers qualify for unemployment benefits.

That’s a precaution state leaders have actually put a good deal of thought into, but Governor Baker took his foot off the gas week after the temporary reopening of the government meant extra time to consider the options.

Baker had said he planned to offer the Legislature a plan this week to extend unemployment insurance benefits to federal workers impacted by the shutdown, but on Monday said that he and the Democrats in the House and Senate would continue to think through the issue.

The Senate appointed a working group to look into state responses while Baker has a plan he just hasn’t shared yet, and DeLeo is still holding out hope that they can all work together.

DeLeo said he brought up the idea of a collective task force to work on the problem again during his private meeting with Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) on Monday, but Spilka “did not respond.”

Advocates will be hoping for more cooperation between the branches this session if they are to advance any number of legislative priorities.

This week, U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy (D-Brookline) joined state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) and state Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) in advocating for a uniform wage for all workers, including tipped workers, set at $15 an hour. Immigration activists, meanwhile, resumed their push to restrict state law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agencies.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), the lead sponsor in the Senate, said there are behind-the-scenes negotiations with House leadership to get them over their hang-ups with the Safe Communities Act, and he’s optimistic that House lawmakers are coming around after another year of watching President Donald Trump.

If the Safe Communities Act did get over the House hurdle this session, Governor Baker may be the immovable wall. “My position hasn’t changed,” Baker said, reiterated this week that he does not support the legislation.

But Eldridge is optimistic that, too, could change:

“Until his re-election he opposed taxes and now he’s proposing, including his budget, a number of taxes, so I remain optimistic we can convince him to support this very modest common sense reform that many police chiefs support,” the Acton Democrat said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Fans of debate got a rare display in the Legislature this week, even if not much changed.

Another year, another Super Bowl appearance. Go Pats!