Sunshine Week 2016

Sunshine Week 2016: Highlights from Pioneer’s Government Transparency Team

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Each Sunshine Week, Pioneer shares highlights of its government transparency work completed over the year. Our objective is to have Massachusetts rank among the nation’s most transparent states. It’s a formidable goal because the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press currently ranks our state at or near rock bottom in the nation for government transparency.

Fortunately, we are not alone in this. Transparency advocates across the state stand united in this vital effort. We will likely see improvements to public records laws in the near future. But we can’t let reform end there; transparency promotes an engaged citizenry, and an engaged citizenry is key to a healthy democracy. And there is still much work to be done.

Here are some of Pioneer’s highlights:

So your knee’s been bothering you and you want to figure out how much it’s going to cost to have an MRI. After all, it’s the law in Massachusetts for hospitals to let you know up front. Sorry, but you’re probably out of luck.

Pioneer institute’s Barbara Anthony and Northeastern University Co-op student Scott Haller teamed up to survey hospitals and here’s what they found: Survey of Price Information. Looks like the state has some boning up to do! (Sorry for that one).

The duo didn’t stop there – they teamed up with Sharyl Attkisson and took their survey national – check out this clip.

You really believe in our state’s constitution. After all, it was largely drafted by John Adams and became the model for the U.S. Constitution. You think the document has the ultimate say as to how our state government should operate. Better rethink that.

We wrote a letter to Attorney General Maura Healey asking for her opinion on our argument as to why the state legislature’s exemption from open meeting law is unconstitutional. Sadly, she chose not to render an opinion. But we are going to press on. With the help of our new research center, PioneerLegal, who knows – we may see if it makes sense to litigate the legislature’s exemption from both open meeting and public records laws. Read recent coverage in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (subscription).

You want to do a public records request and want to know which agencies will give you a speedy response. Well, we teamed with MuckRock.com and performed a little test by asking several agencies for the same document.

Hats off to Massport and the Lottery – they were both highly responsive –  click here to see what happened with other agencies.

Oh, and that Greg Sullivan just won’t quit. He’s our own Mr. Sunshine. The guy has a nose for government inefficiency and dubious spending – perhaps the best nose in the state for that kind of thing.

Here’s what he found out about UMass’ research and development spending. Ouch, sorry, that must hurt, President Meehan.

Pssst – stay tuned, much more to come from Greg on UMass.

Yep, the T sometimes just doesn’t play fare. Despite that bad play on words, historically the sentiment reflects our experience trying to procure the T’s records.

It hasn’t been an easy year trying to get records from the MBTA but there’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not coming from a runaway Red Line train. As of late – since the establishment of the Financial and Management Control Board – we’ve noticed marked improvement in records requests responses. Sure, a May 2015 request for unused sick-time by employee came in in January 2016 – but the trend is moving in the right direction.

Oh, and kudos to Secretary of State Galvin. Without his favorable ruling to our appeal when the T first denied our request, this $49 million sweetheart deal never would have seen the light of day.

And while we’re on the subject of the T, what’s the scoop with all the debt on its books?

Pioneer’s Senior Finance Fellow, Dr. Iliya Atanasov, is, yes, debt-obsessed, especially when he trains his sights on the T. Just click here and see how recklessly off the rails the T has gone with financial derivatives and what can be done about it.

At some point, the sun also rises – at least that’s what we used to learn in high school English class. What didn’t happen by request of the T’s Pension Fund execs, happened through court order.

The T’s pension fund has historically been kept in the dark. This led Dr. Atanasov on what the pundits thought to be a quixotic quest to open the fund’s books. The court proved the pundits wrong. Thanks to a Superior Court judge’s ruling, the fund, bankrolled by the state, is now officially anything but private and must comply with public records laws. Hopefully, the ruling will be expanded to open meeting law at some point – can’t wait for Iliya to start sitting in on the T retirement board meetings.

Transparency is a year-round pursuit.

Check out Pioneer’s 2016  resolutions for the New Year. We’ve already seen some on their way to implementation – well, at least included in bills or debated on the Senate floor!

Pioneer is training the next generation of transparency enthusiasts. Go get ’em Team Pioneer!

Our interns and Northeastern Co-op students uncover and write about a wide range of topics – oh, through the eyes of the young! Like Tufts University student Sabrina Chisti talking about transparency at Massachusetts nursing homes and how two constitutional officers responded to the same request quite differently (with a little help from our man from  Muckrock.com, JPat Brown).

And then there was Kevin Lawson, also from Tufts, who thought that statements of financial interests filed by legislators and policy makers were lacking substance, so he wrote an open letter to the State Ethics Commission. He didn’t even need a calculator to figure out that UMass spending was out of line. And not to be out done, Northeastern Co-op Lauren Corvese also brought her “A” game to dig into UMass’ books and how the school’s finances impacted student debt.

Jacob Tyler, from UMass Amherst began to untangle the complex relationship between Amtrak and the commuter rail.

Northeastern Co-op student Scott Haller probed into Keolis’ lack of transparency regarding commuter rail performance and into, surprise!, the MBTA’s lack of transparency regarding its performance scorecards.

Michael Weiner, yet another Northeastern co-op student (we can’t get enough of them) put forth a strong argument to support Pioneer’s position of posting all gas taxes at the pumps.

CHECK OUT PIONEER’S TRANSPARENCY TOOLBOX

Find out trends in salaries through MassOpenBooks.org.  It’s also good practice to visit MassReportCards before you make that offer on a house – we’ll be updating the site with the most recent MCAS data shortly.

Oh, and of course our latest site MassAnalysis.com which was recently upgraded just in time for Town Meeting!

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