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Analysis: The Legislature Brought DiZoglio’s Accelerating Audit Push on Itself…

Massachusetts State House

Beacon Hill may not be able to hide from Auditor for much longer. It has only itself to blame. (WMP&I)

Last week, State Auditor Diana DiZoglio announced her supporters had gathered enough signatures to put a question on next year’s ballot that would let her audit the legislature. The was a massive boost to her campaign promise to increase scrutiny of the legislature, her onetime elective home. The signature news came weeks after the Attorney General turned back her request to go to court under current law.

Yet, a more significant political victory occurred a week after AG Andrea Campbell passed on intervening. The Massachusetts Democratic State Committee unanimously passed a resolution to support DiZoglio’s effort. This was not a total surprise. She received a rapturous ovation at the state convention in Lowell. Yet, it is a stunning rebuke to Massachusetts Democrats’ most enduring power center: the legislature.

“We collected over the 75,000 signatures needed to advance to the ballot next in the November 2024 election,” DiZoglio said in a video she posted on social media.

“Our ballot question to audit the legislature is on its way to you the voters so that you can make crystal clear to the legislature that you expect transparency, accountability, and accessibility regarding how your tax dollars are being spent between those closed doors,” she continued while thanking signature-gatherers.

The repudiation from Democratic activists and DiZoglio’s signature milestone come during a low point for the Great and General Court. There are achievements, but legislation is crawling slower than ever. Beacon Hill also broke a tardiness record for closing out the prior fiscal year’s budget. Only shame seems to have forced the two chambers to find accord.

This comes after another late budget for the current fiscal year, a cherry topping the legislature’s tower of inertial whipped cream.

This runs deeper than either chamber’s current leader. House Speaker Ron Mariano has shown interest in passing policy while his predecessor preferred to rock zero boats. Senate President Karen Spilka has her own achievements. Her Senate’s agitations against the prior administration, few as they were, would not have been but for her blessing.

Diana Dizoglio

DiZoglio living her best audit. (via Twitter/@DianaDizoglio)

To a certain extent, today’s leaders, while not blameless, are paying for the errors and omissions of their predecessors. However, Mariano and Spilka have resisted DiZoglio’s efforts at every turn.

While legislatures are unpopular across the United States—and globally—there are few rebellions quite like the one against Beacon Hill now. Other states have the “three men in the room,” a reference to the governor and leaders of bicameral legislatures. Progressive policy is not exactly at warp speed in other New England states.

Rather, the origin of this anger is the attitudes several cycles of leadership have had. It has become especially tangible as routine, let alone ground-breaking legislation, slowed to a trickle.

The legislature has always struggled to find a balance between the dictatorships of former speakers Bob DeLeo and Thomas Finneran and more open leadership that former speaker George Keverian and former Senate President Stan Rosenberg championed. As fun/exhausting as it is to expose the steaming piles Charlie Baker left in state government and the body politic, the current malaise dates back to at least Deval Patrick’s administration.

Although the Massachusetts constitution officially makes all three branches of government equal, the legislature has near-boundless power to enforce inertia.

Scandals and convictions led to ethics clampdowns. Yet, there was no serious contemplation of how the legislature became risk-averse, even for a cauldron of 200 politicians. A whole generation of legislators came up in this period, knowing little more than this comical level of caution.

However, it was just not the caution, either. It was the imperiousness of its enforcement. Power became so jealously guarded that minor bills important to Democrats’ constituents could not even get a chance to fail on the floor. The only exception, itself increasingly rare in an era when even the budget has been unanimous, was the odd GOP bill to put the minority its place.

The most controversial elements of DiZoglio’s audit—reviews of how appointments and bill calendars are decided—may face the most constitutional issues. Yet, candor if not always transparency could have blunted her momentum. The legislature and its last decade of leaders are increasingly unwilling to even brook that.

Grassroots and activist anger at electeds is hardly unusual nationally either. Such is a natural response to pols’ worrying about reelection and the need to maintain professional governance. But in Massachusetts, Democratic party activists have felt particularly perturbed by the legislative brushoff.

Meanwhile, the legislature’s own accessibility literally decayed. The coronavirus was no more dangerous in Massachusetts than in other states. Nevertheless, its state house was the last to open in the continental US.

Mariano DeLeo

Speaker Mariano, left, has moved away from DeLeo’s style, but his predecessor still casts a pall. (still via feed)

Beacon Hill hit rock bottom with its abysmal legislative production this year according to The Boston Globe. It is fine to complain about the appropriateness of the governor’s tax bill, but it was the legislature that couldn’t crank it out efficiently despite comparatively minor differences.

Legislative leaders, aware of criticisms, have pointed to policy in the budget bills. Indeed, free school meals and community college for nontraditional age students are good. As a defense of the status quo, however, these accomplishments demonstrate how broken the system is. An uber-Democratic legislature with a Democratic governor acts like it can only enact policy via must-pass bills, as if Ted Cruz is waiting in the wings to invoke the filibuster.

Whether fair or not, it leaves the impression that legislative leadership, whatever the reasons, is telling the base they had nowhere else to go. Activists won’t elect Republicans. Picking off incumbents is too slow and too difficult to achieve a breakthrough.

But they still crave a response. Thus, DiZoglio is pushing on an open door.

Her predecessor, Suzanne Bump, was not acting in bad faith for panning the proposed audit. While Attorney General Campbell’s thumbs-down has a whiff of establishment-protectionism, her legal arguments are rational and reasonable. No matter, as DiZoglio plainly prepared for this eventuality with the parallel track on the ballot.

The question itself polls higher than Kennedys in Massachusetts—okay, bad example—but it reflects true frustration with Beacon Hill’s particular brand of inertia. The answer does not require a hairpin turn leftward. Neither Connecticut nor Rhode Island are doing that, despite being similar to Massachusetts politically, economically and demographically.

Karen Spilka

Sen. Pres Spilka finally has a Democratic governor to advance priorities she has championed, but bill production hasn’t matched the moment. (WMP&I)

Barring unforeseen circumstances, DiZoglio’s ballot question will pass. The Supreme Judicial Court may trim it back, but much of it should stand. DiZoglio will still have won on the merits while airing plenty of dirty legislative laundry.

The inevitable does not mean the legislature stands there and takes it. The House and Senate must seriously assess how this year became such a self-own. Decisions, including inactions, need more clarity and explanation. The wheel of legislating, even if mostly modest bills, must spin and pick up speed.

The window for formal sessions should only close ahead of election season. There is no reason reps and senators can expect all odd-year Decembers off from school. The corollary is a predictable schedule laid out months in advance. Even the clown show GOP majority in the US House of Representatives coughed up a public schedule for 2024.

The legislature should want to do this not just because it stinks to see fellow Democrats wagging their fingers. Certainly, it is the right thing to do, but primary challenges will come one day. Less likely, but not impossible, the Green Party of Massachusetts could stop worshipping Jill Stein and elect reps in places like Cambridge or Somerville.

Again, neither Mariano nor Spilka are solely responsible for the Beacon Hill breakdown. At worst, they are perpetuating what others had done. Yet, it falls to them to fix it. Self-interest here, too, is at play.

“We cannot keep doing business as usual and doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” DiZoglio said in her video. “That is the definition of insanity.”

Indeed, legislative leaders would be crazy to wait to start work lest institutional failure be their legacies.