By Carol Kozma
BOSTON -- Eight-year-old Sean Lesniak sat in front of the Joint Judiciary Committee in July to tell legislators that shark finning, the practice of cutting a shark's fin and throwing the animal back into the ocean, should be illegal in the state.
"I thought it was very commendable," said state Rep. David Nangle.
Nangle, a Lowell Democrat, asked Sean to testify at the hearing after the boy asked him to file a bill on the issue. Nangle filed the bill "by request."
Massachusetts offers citizens the "right of free petition" -- the power to propose their own legislation. A citizen's proposal must be filed in conjunction with a representative or senator.
Sometimes a legislator will support the legislation and sponsor it along with the constituent. Other times, a legislator might disagree with the bill but will file it anyway as a courtesy.
In those cases, the bill is listed as being filed "by request" -- indicating that he or she is doing so at the request of the constituent and does not necessarily support it, said House Clerk Steve James.
Nangle said it is his duty is to file bills for constituents, even if he does not support them.
"You are the voice of that individual, at that time," Nangle said.
Legislators have many reasons to file bills by request. Nangle said he wanted to give Sean credit for researching the issue, and encourage constituent participation.
"I would never want to take the limelight," Nangle said. "It's a great example of a young boy getting a great education."
But when a constituent proposes a new bill, Nangle said he usually finds a bill that has already been filed that would accomplish what the constituent wants.
"At that point, I would add my own name," Nangle said, thus co-sponsoring that bill.
State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, said constituents often ask her to support a bill that has already been filed. If a constituent proposes a new bill, she tries to understand what the constituent wants to accomplish and the effect it may have across the state.
"So from there you just vet it out, you weigh the pros and cons," Flanagan said.
Under House and Senate rules, legislators file bills in the first month of the first year of the two-year legislative session. Bills filed after deadline may take longer to be considered, Flanagan said.
Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, said she meets with constituents beforehand in hopes of meeting the deadline.
"If it were something that I was fundamentally opposed to, I would try to come up with something else," Harrington said.
If she was unable, she would also file the bill by request.
Brooks Lyman, a Groton resident who belongs to the MIT Pistol and Rifle Club, asked Harrington to file legislation that would create a roster of firearms allowed in target shooting clubs. She met the request.
"I thought it would probably be a very helpful idea," Harrington said, considering the high volume of gun legislation proposed this session.
Sometimes constituents contact their local legislators with a request that cannot be met, such as one Harrington received in January 2011.
"They were upset that a certain show on TV related to the NFL took the place of 'Jeopardy!'," Harrington said.
She told the constituent that she could not control television line-ups.
"I just thought it was funny," Harrington said.
And then there are those bills of lesser importance, such as the legislative duel between the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie and the Fig Newton for the honor of being named the official state cookie.
In the 1990s, then-state Rep. Tom Norton, of Somerset, visited a third-grade class and challenged the students to write a bill that would make the Tollhouse cookie the state's official cookie. Kathleen Teahan, a former state representative from Whitman, where the cookie was invented in 1930, co-sponsored the bill.
"People in town were very excited because the Tollhouse restaurant was very famous" Teahan said.
Teahan said students or parents looking for additional income worked there, and famous people such as the Kennedys and movie stars stopped in on occasion.
The bill looked to moving ahead smoothly, that is until the city of Newton got wind of it.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, who represented Newton in the House at the time, led a separate push to make the Fig Newton the state cookie.
Teahan said the Tollhouse won the vote in a House Administrative Committee hearing, after a student at the hearing argued that no child ever came home from school excited at the smell of Fig Newtons baking in the oven.
Gov. William Weld signed the bill into law in 1997.
"They had platters of chocolate cookies at that time," Teahan said. "It was fun. We had a big cookie day."
Material from Beacon Hill Roll Call was used in this report.