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Massachusetts legislature: a bothersome study in inefficiency

LAWMAKING in Massachusetts is anything but a full-time activity. Just look at the 1986 legislative session, which ended at midnight Tuesday. At best it was an exercise in wasting time. Certainly the senators and representatives had their busy moments drafting, fine-tuning, and approving or rejecting various important measures. But since July these periods of sometimes almost frenzied activity have been few.

It is an all too familiar story. Not since 1980, when the legislature completed its work in orderly fashion on July 5, has an annual session ended before early January.

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Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that things will be any different during the session that began Wednesday. Both House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett and Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, who control the lawmaking process, seem to like things as they are and have little interest in getting together to develop an efficient work schedule.

Part of the reason may be a lack of push from the legislative ranks where more than a few lawmakers may have forgotten the good old days when the end of the annual sitting by late summer or early fall was the rule rather than the exception.

Perhaps legislators need a deadline for completing legislative action, one well in advance of the following year's session.

A modest proposal in that direction made it through the Senate last month but got nowhere in the House. If such a plan were approved by both chambers, it would require lawmakers to complete their work by Thanksgiving in a nonelection year and before election day in state election years.

That would eliminate the need for lame-duck legislators to come back to Beacon Hill for what is often a frantic push to put a lot of laws on the books, including costly pet projects.

While the Senate-endorsed joint rules change would be an improvement, it could be stretched or waived entirely, should the legislative leadership so desire.

A better or at least a less-fragile arrangement would be a state constitution-imposed deadline similar to those in well over half the other states.

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This would not prevent a governor from reconvening a legislature to deal with matters of urgency.

Provisions might also be made for legislators to recall themselves, if the vast majority of members in each chamber felt such a return was in the best interest of the commonwealth.

A requirement that four-fifths of those in each legislative branch must agree to the recall would seem reasonable.

Several proposed constitutional changes to provide for a six- or seven-month, limit on the annual sittings have been filed in recent years for consideration by senators and representatives meeting in joint session. But none of them got anywhere.

Similar proposals have been filed for consideration this year and seem destined to a similar fate.

Although there is no guarantee that a shorter session would produce better laws, a lot less thumb-twiddling and wheel-spinning seems likely with individual legislators focusing more on ``the people's business'' and less on what amounts to an endless succession of vacations at taxpayer expense.

The certainty of a briefer session might encourage the candidacy of more highly qualified men and women who cannot afford to be away from their businesses or professions all year long.

Because lawmaker action on most of the key measures considered each year, except for the annual state budget, is ordinarily not completed until the waning days of the session, why not have the crunch come in mid-to-late summer rather than December or early January, when, like it or not, the calendar brings down the legislative curtain?

A shorter sitting might well produce fewer laws, especially fewer of the insignificant type that do little more than clutter up statute books. The Senate and House leadership would certainly see to it that the really important proposals were taken up.

Had the 1986 legislature been less recess prone, there is little doubt that everything could have been dealt with months ago, and at an unhurried pace. But that might have forced many lawmakers to face up to the fact that their jobs are only part-time. It would thus become harder to justify a pay raise, beyond the current annual base wage of $30,000.

Stretching out the legislative year to make it appear that a lot more is being accomplished than really is is something that does nobody credit, least of all the senators and representatives themselves.

If those involved don't do something to speed up their proceedings, outside civic forces may have to take the initiative through a petition drive to impose a constitutional limit on legislative sessions. Putting off action on controversial matters until after the election is at best political cowardice and at least unfair to the state's voters.

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