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Commonwealth and Reform

Brass Tacks

By Russell B. Roberts

Entered on the docket of the Massachusetts legislature now, are six thoroughly useful bills which, if passed, would provide the Commonwealth with a good measure of badly needed governmental reform.

As constitutional amendments, the bills must be passed by two successive legislatures and approved in a general referendum before enactment is final. Two of the six proposed acts have already been considered and adopted by one legislature and if passed in this session will be placed on the ballot of the next state-wide election.

The first of these two, and the worthiest of the six, is Senate Bill 665 which would extend the term of office of the Governor and other constitutional officers from two to four years. Under the present and grossly inadequate arrangements, an average Governor spends roughly the first quarter of his administration learning the job and the last quarter trying to get re-elected to it, never leaving more than a year of effective performance. besides eliminating this evil, a four-year term would reduce the strain on the two major political parties and encourage the growth of minor ones.

The other measure before the legislature for second and final consideration, Senate Bill 663, would limit the regular legislative session to six months of each year. Presumably such a reduction in the time required of a legislator would make the office more attractive to qualified men.

This bill is complemented by another proposed amendment, House Bill 1384, establishing limited home rule. Without this reform, as it is now, no city or town in Massachusetts can make even a minor change in its governmental organization or appoint any official without the approval of the legislature. Bills concerned with these strictly local affairs amount to several thousand a year, constipating the legislature and hindering the municipalities involved. The suggested reform would cause the institution of general operating procedures and leave the conduct of daily affairs to local officers.

House Bill 1382 would establish a joint ticket for the offices of Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, another alleviation of the strain on the parties as well as the candidates and a basis for greater co-operation within the executive branch.

House Bill 1385 provides for the dissolution of the obstructive and superfluous Executive Council, a relic of colonial history which is empowered to approve or reject several hundred gubernatorial appointments. The Governor would be granted still greater freedom by House Bill 1386 which authorizes him to re-organize the Commonwealth's unwieldy executive department; the Governor must now administer 247 independent bureaus with no clear pattern of organization. Former Gov. John Volpe reportedly could not even remember who directed each of the agencies, let alone what their functions were.

The reforms with which these six proposals are concerned were major tenets of Gov. Endicott Peabody's 1962 campaign platform and they continue to receive his comparatively enthusiastic support. But they predictably face disturbing encumbrances in the legislature and perhaps in the referendums that would follow.

Especially in the House of Representatives, long a sacred cow pasture, the prospects for such substantial changes as these are not nearly as optimistic as they ought to be. The legislature's Republican caucus would not be altogether gratified by the enactment of bills which might prove an effective cure-all for Gov. Peabody's ailing prestige.

But the Great and General Court has its own image to worry about, discovering in the last election that past incumbency is not the only qualification for future incumbency, and if it can be shown that the Massachusetts electorate favors enlightenment then the legislature will likely favor enlightenment too. If, then, some constitutional reform is enacted, Massachusetts can once more start shouldering more of a state's share of the Federal system.

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