My far-and-away favorite news story this week was the Boston Globe piece by Joshua Miller outlining two referendum questions that a couple of mischievous MIT grad students put on the ballot in House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s home district.
Twenty-four year old Daniel Mascoop and 27-year-old Max Dunitz had had it with the House torpedoing the most forward-looking climate change legislation. They don’t live in DeLeo’s district but they only had to gather 200 signatures to put something non-binding on the local ballot and they did.
The students were upset because the House had jettisoned a provision in a Senate bill that would have placed a new charge on gas and other fossil fuels. The aim was to drive down greenhouse emissions that the vast majority of scientists believe will cause climatic catastrophe in the not-too-distant future.
Mascoop and Dunitz asked the district voters about what the House should do on climate change.
But the MITers were sly. Into the language of a second ballot question, they inserted some background information about what Bobby DeLeo, as he’s known in the district, has been up to behind the scenes.
Like the fact that the House last year passed pay raises that hiked some salaries, including the speaker’s, by 50 percent, or $45,000 a year. DeLeo had already leaned on the House members whose stipends he controls to convince them to pass legislation eliminating the eight-year term limit for speakers so he himself could benefit big from the salary boost.
Mascoop and Dunitz asked the voters if the speaker should be instructed to vote to repeal the pay raise and even more pointedly, asked whether he should vote to prohibit the staff of House members from lobbying the Legislature for five years after they leave their jobs. James Eisenberg, DeLeo’s longtime chief of staff, had resigned his position last year and will be eligible to be a lobbyist on Jan 2.
Lobbying, of course, is how laws that benefit the few at the expense of the many often get done.
Unreasonably large pay raises, legislation that allows House members and their staffs to play the influence game, that’s the way the Massachusetts Legislature has always worked. And despite every best effort to reform it, the inside ways regularly re-emerge stronger than ever.
It’s not that the Legislature doesn’t pass plenty of forward-looking laws, including on climate change. We on SouthCoast are grateful for what Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Haddad led them to do on the enabling legislation for offshore wind. And to be fair, the Legislature also passed its own gas tax a few years ago, only to see it repealed by shortsighted voters at the ballot box.
But it’s the lawmakers’ behind-the-scenes, self-interested maneuvering that drives a lot of folks to discouragement, and the MIT guys have used that fact to try to jigger a more serious state debate about climate change.
Truth be told, until this week, the lab jockeys hadn’t generated much publicity by their referendums. DeLeo himself professesed not to have known about them until early voting started and a constituent asked him about the questions. A wise guy, DeLeo told the Globe reporter his support in his Winthrop-based district, just north of Boston, remains strong. “We had a little fund-raiser, well more of a get-together, in Winthrop the other night. We had over 400 people, all very enthusiastic about my reelection,” he said.
DeLeo was toying with the reporter. The speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative was unabashedly talking about people giving him money to run for office being enthusiastic about what he will do when in office.
Now, in case you think Speaker DeLeo doesn’t have anything to do with us down on SouthCoast, you should know that the number of House chairmen and vice chairmen who receive stipends and saw big salary boosts includes about half the Legislature. DeLeo’s lieutenants on the SouthCoast include everyone from Tony Cabral to Bill Straus to Chris Markey and more, and they all got a lot of money. Cabral and Straus went from $90K to $112K in return for the chairmanships DeLeo gave them.
Cabral, Straus and Markey are all good legislators, guys who work hard and are moderate in their politics and deserve a reasonable raise now and then. But that’s not what the House pay raise was. And worse than that, this kind of system doesn’t grant individual legislators’ real independence and it discourages public debate on the merits of policy.
In the end, the MIT graduate students' ballot questions aren’t likely to stir that much noise. Unless somehow, some way, one of them chanced to pass in DeLeo’s district. And even then. In any event, they’re a reminder to us that our government isn’t as excellent as it could be.
Good on these millennial students for not taking it lying down. Even if they are just spitting into the wind.
Climate change is an issue worth taking such a stand for.