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How It Works On Beacon Hill

BOSTON — State lawmakers are under federal investigation for their connection to a corruption scandal at the state’s Probation Department. Probation officials are accused of running a fraudulent hiring scheme that funneled jobs to the friends and families of legislative leaders.

This is just the latest corruption scandal to hit the State House as the last three House speakers have been indicted. Some State House watchers and members say there’s something deeply wrong on Beacon Hill.

The Threat Of ‘Voting Off’ Looms Large

Rep. Steve D’Amico joined the State House four years ago. When he started the job, he said, he believed he was joining a representative democracy. Quickly, he changed his mind.

“If you don’t play ball, and go along and vote the way you’re expected to on some issues, they can hold bills up on you,” D’Amico said.

This is called “voting off.” According to Beacon Hill Roll Call, D’Amico has “voted off” more than all but one of his Democratic colleagues.

Just recently, D’Amico was reminded of the repercussions of not going along with House leadership. D’Amico was on a committee considering a new piece of complicated legislation. Before they could read it, D’Amico said, the group was asked to submit their amendments withing 24 hours. D’Amico didn’t think that was long enough.

“I voted off on that one,” D’Amico said. Later, he said, someone in leadership came and asked why he’d voted against him. “I was told, ‘Fine, if you want to go ahead and be a rebel without a cause, that’s fine,’ but I’d never see a bill make it to the floor.”

How is it that Beacon Hill leaders have so much power?

Power On Beacon Hill

According to activist Chris McKeown, the House speaker and Senate president have amassed “absolute power.”

“They control the flow of legislation, whether a bill ever gets to the floor,” McKeown said. “They appoint all of the committee chairs that come with extra pay, where you park at the State House, how many staff members you can have, how much money you can get from the party for your election campaign.”

McKeown, founder of FixBeaconHill.com, has been trying to change the law by limiting the the speaker and Senate president’s power. He said the concentration of power can corrupt anyone who holds these jobs.

D’Amico said it turns lawmakers into lemmings. There was one vote where this was particularly obvious.

The Vote

Most of the Democrats were voting green. The votes were displayed on a big sign overhead.

“Speaker Pro Tem [Thomas] Petrolati was at the podium and wasn’t paying attention, and happened to hit red,” D’Amico said. “I looked up and said, ‘Oh, my goodness. He hit the wrong button. This is going to be entertaining.’ ”

D’Amico sat back and watched. Very quickly, he said, about 40 or 50 green lights turned to red.

“By the time they got to about 80 or 90 reds, he realized that he’d hit the wrong button and he hit green and I watched the board full of reds turn to green,” D’Amico said.

Rep. Matt Patrick has similar stories. He’s a Democrat representing Falmouth. During his years at the State House, he said, he learned to play “the game” and “appease leadership.”

To do this, he said he “voted with them as often as I could.” He said he green-lighted things he didn’t actually support, like extending term limits for the House speaker.

Last January, Patrick got so frustrated that he researched how other state legislatures work. He wrote up recommendations for House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Patrick said he never got a response.

A spokesman for DeLeo, however, said those ideas are under consideration for a debate on rules this January.

Representatives Patrick and D’Amico won’t be there to participate, since they both lost their re-elections this fall.

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