Massachusetts Governor's Council: the Anachronism That Will Not Die

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was a young state representative from Brookline when he first talked of eliminating the Governor's Council, that nebulous group of elected-but-unknown officials who have as their sole function the confirmation of new judges.

A relic of the time when the Royal Governor of Massachusetts had to be held in check by a "council of assistants," the Governor's Council was no longer relevant or necessary, Dukakis argued, and its role could be performed easier and better by the Massachusetts Senate. Many others had made that argument before.

Today, Dukakis is a respected elder statesman and university professor, long retired from politics, and the Governor's Council is still going strong, if you are willing to consider its non-laborious work a vital endeavor, that is.

Now comes State Senator Brian Joyce of Milton, the latest in a line of good government champions who want to put the Governor's Council out of business. Joyce has introduced Senate Bill 15, A Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Providing for the Abolition of the Governor's Council.

Like Dukakis, Joyce proposes that the Massachusetts Senate replace the Governor's Council in the task of interviewing and voting on persons nominated for judgeships by the governor. That's how it's done in most states.

Joyce has stats showing that, in the four-year period of 2007-10, the Governor's Council met for an average of 5.2 minutes per week. Only four council meetings during that span lasted more than 20 minutes, he says.

Four hundred thousand dollars!

That's how much the Commonwealth could save per year by doing away with the Governor's Council, according to one generally accepted estimate. Joyce calls that a "conservative" figure.

The good senator from Norfolk is almost certainly correct.

Members of the Governor's Council receive an annual salary of $26,025. But they cost the state more than that -- probably a lot more over time -- if you count health coverage and pension costs.

There are people who have run for Governor's Council, including at least one current member, mainly because time served there could give them enough years to qualify for state pensions and/or lifetime coverage under the health insurance system for state employees and retirees.

Had pensions and health insurance existed in 1628, the year the Governor's Council was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Charles I, King of England at the time, would no doubt have been appalled by such motives.

With self-before-service the theme du jour, we are not so easily appalled today.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't give Brian Joyce a big thumbs-up and wish him luck with Senate Bill 89.

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