2014 Priority: Legislative Procedures

January 23, 2014

For all the time the legislature spends trying to dictate behavior to state agencies and town governments, we seem reluctant to examine and improve the way we do business. I believe there is plenty we might address, especially given the deterioration I have seen in legislative procedure in the quarter-century since my first term.

Let me focus on one example of legislative dysfunction: the notorious implementer. Intended as a purely technical bill designed to make statutory changes necessary to put the state budget into effect, the implementer has become a so-called ‘Christmas tree,’ on which many unrelated initiatives are hung.

Some of the most significant—for instance, the early release of violent criminals, which passed in a 2011 implementer—received no formal legislative scrutiny before inclusion in this enormous, complex bill. Worse, neither interested parties nor the public as a whole were given a chance to testify on many of the proposals in the implementer; in fact, they had no way of knowing what the bill would contain.

After backroom negotiation, the implementer bill is typically presented to the legislature in the final days, even the final minutes, of the session. In 2013, the Senate voted on the implementer in the last hour before the midnight deadline for action, before a physical copy of the bill (over 500 pages long) had even been delivered to legislators.

That’s no way to make law. Such poor policy is the result of long deterioration of the process. No single person, party, or philosophy is at fault, and no blame need be assigned. We must as a body recognize our problem, and resolve to do better. A little pressure from the voting public, and the ongoing scrutiny of the capitol press corps, might encourage us to change our ways.