After a blogging hiatus due to health issues, I’m back, and I can’t help think about the state of our state legislature. It’s a theme I’ve already hit on in my brief stint blogging here, but it’s come to the forefront for me again after reading about several high profile votes (including one on the millionaire’s tax and another on the transgender rights bill) during my convalescence.
I’ve heard from numerous people on both sides of the aisle who were not happy with the positions taken by those who represent them (although good luck trying to figure out how your representative voted on the committee bill if s/he happens to sit on the Ways and Means Committee). In most cases though, there’s not much that can be done if you’re one of the dissatisfied; for instance, the StateHouse news service reports that 105 of the 160 of the members in the House will run unopposed this election cycle.
As someone who studies state legislatures for a living, I’ve thought about our legislature a great deal. Right now, the question on my mind is how do we create a legislature that is open, responsive, and reflects the policy priorities of the people who live here? Don’t get me wrong—I think the legislature here does a pretty good job of this. In reading about and studying state legislatures, I’ve learned it can be worse—much, much worse. But it could also be better, and there are things we could do to help. More transparency (and subjecting the legislature to the same public records law that was just signed into law) is one step, but what else can be done?
A common argument (one I heard recently on the Jim Braude and Margery Eagan show) is—let’s just throw all the bums out with term limits. But the effects of term limits are complicated. While they haven’t lived up to the greatest fears of opponents or the greatest hopes of proponents, the evidence is mounting that their effect has been primarily negative. They shift the balance of power away from elected officials to appointed officials, particularly those in the executive branch, have not done much to increase diversity in these chambers, make legislators less responsive to their constituents, and reduce bipartisan collaboration, to name just a few examples.
Of course, the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down past attempts to limit the terms of members of the General Assembly. But when frustration with the decisions our elected officials (at the local, state and national level) make emerges, I’d like to hope that the conversation will focus on reforms that are both do-able and do the things we want them to.