Roy at Center of Beacon Hill Power Struggle


Sam Doran|SHNS

The fireworks on Beacon Hill this week over rules and scheduling in one legislative committee -- normally a mundane topic -- were touched off by what multiple Senate offices said was a broader push by the House to assert dominance over the committee process, while a House chair contended his joint panel had been held "hostage" from doing its work.

At issue are proposed rules changes that one House chair said would prevent a lawmaker from holding up the flow of legislation, while several senators said the changes would empower the House side of a committee to mount greater control over what's intended to be a collaborative bill-crafting process.

Two months have flown by since all of the Legislature's 30-plus joint committees failed to meet a March 16 deadline to agree on internal rules that govern their hearings and voting procedures, and still, not a single panel has filed any rules for this session with the clerks' offices.

By contrast, a third of the Legislature's committees finalized internal rules in the 2021-2022 term, according to the House clerk's office.

At the same time every committee is rammed up against a rules roadblock, the entire Legislature has failed since 2019 to agree to a new set of Joint Rules. House and Senate Democrats in closed door negotiations can't agree on changes to those rules that govern interactions between the branches, including ways to broaden access to public testimony and provide more information about how individual committee members vote on bills.

Last Sunday marked three months since a House-Senate conference committee chaired by House Majority Leader Michael Moran and Senate Rules Chair Joan Lovely held their first meeting to allegedly work out differences between their branches' 2023 proposals.

The epicenter of the sudden public spat was at the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, where a hearing Thursday on offshore wind and clean energy bills started off not with testimony on those important policy areas, but with a continuation of a feud between co-chairmen that erupted Monday and dragged on all week.

"Spending The Night In Boston"

Opening a House-only public hearing of the joint committee that handles climate policy, co-chair Rep. Jeffrey Roy read a lengthy statement, calling the divide "inefficient" and "nonsensical" and saying it was leading to "unnecessary costs."

The Senate co-chair, Sen. Michael Barrett, asserted Monday that Roy had scheduled this week's hearing without his consent, in breach of existing rules, and the panel's Senate members convened their own dueling hearing on Friday to hear testimony on the same 18 bills concerning offshore wind, clean energy, and energy storage.

Francis Pullaro, executive director of renewable energy association RENEW Northeast, came to testify on a few bills before the committee Thursday regarding offshore wind. He said he would have driven to Maine later in the day to testify on bills before the Maine Legislature as well, but he had to be back in Boston on Friday to testify before the committee's Senate members.

"I think this is probably the earliest in the draw that I've been selected to testify. Had I known, I probably would have gotten here a lot earlier, so I could drive to Maine because they're having their hearing on their major offshore wind bill, as well. But, apparently, we're sticking around for tomorrow as well. So, looking forward to spending the night in Boston," Pullaro said.

In the absence of any committee rules, the panel falls back on Joint Rule 1C, according to the Senate clerk's office -- a provision already in effect that requires hearings be scheduled "upon agreement of the chairs."

"Today's hearing was in violation of the committee's current rules, regrettably," Barrett told the News Service Thursday.

Roy contended in an interview that he used "the proper procedure all along the way" by putting the hearing schedule to a vote of the entire committee, and said none of the panel's Senate members participated in the vote. Joint committees have more House members than Senate members.

Senate President Karen Spilka weighed in Thursday night on the infighting, writing that she "expect[s] all Chairs to follow agreed-upon joint rules and to follow the long-established precedent of using committee rules from the previous session if unable to reach a new agreement on committee rules."

Referring to Barrett, Roy said Wednesday that "he's holding us hostage" on the hearing schedule because "he is loath to lose his unilateral power" to hold up committee votes on bills.

"What both of us should be hostage to is the principle of equality between the branches," Barrett responded in an interview.

Roy said he had started the conversation on scheduling a hearing on March 14 and "followed up that request for a hearing every week, until finally, we learned sometime in April that the Senate chair was not interested in conducting hearings until we had come to agreement on the rules."

The Franklin Democrat told the News Service he was mindful of the legislative timeline. Lawmakers are into the fifth month of the new session and have nine months remaining for committees to hear testimony on bills and vote on whether to give them favorable or unfavorable reports. Roy said he proposed a "temporary" set of rules to govern hearings and "got absolutely no response."

"There are many issues that need to be addressed in the bills before our committee and I'm anxious to get things going. The stakeholders and our constituents are pleading with us to take action to address global warming and we are in a unique position to lead on these issues and save the planet," Roy said at the hearing attended only by representatives on Thursday.

Despite their differences over rules, Roy and Barrett have negotiated major clean energy and climate laws in recent years. One of those, a major clean energy and offshore wind package from 2022, was raised by both men as an example in their separate interviews.

In interviews, Barrett and Roy shared the same definition of the proposed change that led to this week's bifurcated hearing and the sharp words. Under the House-backed proposal, a single co-chair would be able to schedule a hearing on their own or call for a vote on whether to report out a bill.

Roy said his rules package would remedy a situation from last session when he said Barrett held up a committee vote on a major clean energy and offshore wind power bill, while Barrett countered that the process worked as intended and made the bill stronger.

The House sought to bring an offshore wind bill to the floor "as quickly as possible," Roy said, after he, House Speaker Ronald Mariano, and more than 20 other representatives took a boat tour to view turbines off Block Island in September 2021.

"And it wasn't until January that [Barrett] would finally agree to conduct a poll on that bill. We could have gotten that bill done earlier in time. But one man, using a unilateral power which doesn't make sense to me, was able to hold it back," Roy said.

"I'm pleased to say that over the course of negotiation between Jeff and me, a bill that was focused almost exclusively on offshore wind grew to include 100 discrete sections on all manner of clean energy priorities. The title of the bill itself changed. Jeff's memory has had a lapse. The new and final title ... is An Act Driving Clean Energy and Offshore Wind," Barrett said.

The Lexington Democrat said Roy had been "uninterested in building out the legislation," but that the Senate members negotiated to pack in "a good number of additional steps that we might take on climate change."

Roy also cited frustration with his attempt to schedule a final poll last session on 115 bills that remained in the committee. He said Barrett "refused to agree" to the vote, leading to automatic negative reports for all those measures.

"The decision on which bills to poll itself triggers a negotiation," Barrett said, which for the Senate focuses on moving bills from their branch "forward in equal measure."

The House's rules package would mean that each co-chair could call their own vote, Barrett said, "but the Senate would always lose because the House has a simple majority. We would get an occasional crumb."

"Uniform Template"

The attempt to alter the power-sharing structure at the committee level is not isolated to Barrett and Roy's panel, multiple senators said this week.

Public Health Committee Co-chair Sen. Julian Cyr said that when he received a rules proposal from the House side, it contained the same changes and it was visibly "a uniform template."

"This is a change in practice," the Truro Democrat said. He recalled how developing operating procedures was traditionally left up to the co-chairs and "different committees, depending on their histories, had different sets of rules."

Sen. Marc Pacheco, who co-chairs the Emergency Preparedness Committee, said his counterpart Rep. William Driscoll proffered a set of changes similar to the ones Barrett received.

"And the rules that I was shown were really rules that said that it was just a majority-rule," Pacheco told the News Service, adding that he's continuing to hold conversations with Driscoll.

Health Care Financing Committee Co-chair Sen. Cindy Friedman reported that she was sent draft changes in March "that would have changed the precedent of committee chairs being on equal ground," responded with her concerns, and proposed using last session's rules as a precedent.

Sen. Edward Kennedy said he, too, had received a proposal from the House side that would have given more autonomy to a single co-chair to act on their own.

Joint committee memberships are split 65 to 35 percent between House and Senate members, and senators expressed concerns that the House could regularly out-vote them at the committee level if a handshake requirement between chairs were removed.

The News Service reached out to the co-chairs of 31 joint committees, from Advanced Information Technology to Veterans and Federal Affairs, about why they had now hit a two-month impasse on adopting committee rules and where their negotiations stood. No co-chairs from the House responded to News Service questions, with the exception of Roy.

Meantime, other senators focused on the work they've already waded into.

Most joint committees have moved on to holding hearings even in the absence of rules, and at least eight joint committees have voted on bills this session, according to a review of the Legislature's website.

Committees focused on state borrowing, consumer protection, election laws, the judiciary, municipalities, public service, taxation, and transportation have all voted up or down on at least one bill.

Sen. Anne Gobi told the News Service that the "grass is truly greener in the agriculture committee," where she enjoys working with co-chair Rep. Paul Schmid and they have already finished holding hearings on every bill in their custody.

Sen. Michael Moore, co-chair of the Advanced IT Committee, said his panel had already held its first hearing in the absence of any agreed-upon rules. Rules talks "are ongoing and I am hopeful we will reach an agreement this session," he said.

Municipalities and Regional Government Committee Co-chair Sen. Jacob Oliveira said he and Rep. Carole Fiola agreed to rely on the Joint Rules, they've already held a hearing together, and "we're just getting to work."

And Barrett said it's "nothing personal" for him, either, adding that he has no "ill will" toward Roy, who was his brother's college roommate.

"We both sing or have sung in folk rock bands, we've exchanged musical snippets about each other's performances," Barrett said.

The branches have squabbled over rules, large and small, for years.

"I would say there are disagreements on rules in every committee in every session," Roy told the News Service, responding to a question about tensions this year on other panels. "The only thing that this conversation is about is attempting to hear bills. And I think it's nonsensical and undemocratic to allow a rules debate that's been going on for 20 years to interfere with us hearing bills," he added.

This week's controversy is "only about a single issue," Barrett said: "whether both branches of the Legislature will have an equal say in the final form a bill takes."

Pacheco called the rules fight "not necessarily new, although the level of where we are in talking about this is new."

"I don't remember a time when this has happened, where we've actually seen a separate set of hearings go forward. That is unprecedented," the Taunton Democrat said.

[Sam Drysdale contributed reporting.]

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified