Online chatter colors private talks on bill flow dispute

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 2, 2015….Name any major piece of legislation to come out of Beacon Hill in recent years and its final details were almost certainly negotiated in private between a small panel of House and Senate lawmakers.

The current state budget, a 2012 health care cost containment law and the expansion into casino gaming were all crystallized by six-member conference committees that blended bills that cleared each branch.

When lawmakers get asked about public policy issues being discussed in conference, they usually clam up and cite an unwritten code they say forbids them from speaking about topics subject to private negotiations between branch leaders. The first rule of conference committee, more often than not, is you do not talk about conference committee.

Apparently, the internet falls outside that code.

State senators, led by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, have recently taken to social media to mount a public push for their plan to seize some of the control of the flow of bills from the House.

Though the matter is current before a conference committee, Rosenberg recently wrote a letter published online in support of the Senate’s proposal and crafted a two-page informational graphic depicting the House as a roadblock to Senate debate over legislation filed by its members.

The attempt at a grassroots campaign to build public support for the Senate’s rules package may not technically violate the confidentiality of conference negotiations, but it is a departure from recent customs and has further tested the already fragile working relationship between the old hands of the House and new leadership in the Senate.

“I was extremely disappointed when I saw that the Senate president had gone onto Twitter. It undermines the conference committee process and I was extremely disappointed,” House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano told the News Service this week.

“One of the things that we’re going to be faced with over the next two years of this session is many different conference committees dealing with many different issues and if the first sign of trouble people run to the social media to try and mount public pressure I think we’re going to have a very, very difficult couple of years,” Mariano added.

Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, is leading the House’s negotiations with the Senate over a rules package opposite New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny. Reps. Garrett Bradley and Paul Frost and Sens. Petruccelli and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr are also on the conference.

In a joint statement from Montigny and Rosenberg, the two senators disputed the notion that they had violated the unwritten rules of confidentiality between the branches.

“From day one we have used various avenues, including social media, to engage our constituents to inform them about what is going on in the Senate. We are hopeful that we can come to an agreement, but we certainly would not comment on the substance of the negotiations of an ongoing conference committee,” the statement read.

Rosenberg, on his website, Twitter and Facebook, drew attention to a letter signed by the president, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Montigny explaining the Senate’s position on changing the committee process.

Rosenberg also developed a graphic flow chart demonstrating how pieces of legislation can get held up in committees controlled by a majority of House members. In the days following its posting, the graphic and letter have been shared on Twitter by multiple members of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans.

“Please support the @MA_Senate plan to improve government efficiency and get more done by passing #TheJointRules,” tweeted Sen. Barbara L’Italien, an Andover Democrat.

The Senate has proposed to allow Senate members of joint committees to vote bills filed by senators out of committee without the support of House members. The House could do the same with bills filed by its members. There have long been more House members than Senate members on joint committees, giving them an advantage if they vote as a group.

“We believe that our current structure of twenty-five joint committees is the most efficient method of moving bills through the legislative process. We hold a single hearing on each bill rather than a hearing before a House committee and one before a Senate committee. This arrangement, however, is not living up to its full potential,” Rosenberg wrote in the online letter.

The graphic chart prepared by the Senate president explains how bills move through committees and blames the current committee structure for often preventing the Senate from debating and voting on bills filed by its members, contending that legislation either goes to the House first or never gets out of committee. “This hurts efficiency and makes your government less effective,” it states.

While Senate leaders say they are open to other proposals, and suggest they have floated alternatives to their House colleagues, Rosenberg appealed to the public for ideas to help “reach accord with the House.”

Early last month, before conference negotiators had even sat down for the first time, there were already signs that talks could prove difficult. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who is not on the joint rules conference, declared the Senate committee proposal a “non-starter.”

A week before conferees had their first face-to-face sit down, Rosenberg’s chief of staff Natasha Perez held a conference call with other chiefs of staff in the Senate to address questions and concerns regarding the rules proposal.

During the call, according to several people who participated, Perez encouraged the staff to have senators talk with members of the House if they felt representatives were confused about what the Senate was proposing.

Perez confirmed that the call took place, but told the News Service that it was her intention only to answer questions and clear up any misconceptions for staff that she felt had been perpetrated by the media.

In response to questions about what would happen if talks with the House broke down, Perez told staff to gauge the interest of Senate members in setting up a parallel committee structure in the Senate, which would not require House cooperation and has been described by Montigny as the “nuclear option.”

Perez also suggested that staff take their senator’s temperature on piloting separate Senate committees on a limited basis, according to those on the call, after the topic was raised by someone else. Perez also reportedly made clear to those on the call that there would be no money made available to hire additional staff if the Senate did break away and form its own committees.

The House and Senate are currently operating under temporary rules held over from the last session.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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