Entries by Mary Connaughton

Op-ed: Justification For 40% Legislative Leadership Raises Is Political Voodoo

When doing the people’s will is secondary to legislators’ self-interest, how strong is our democracy? The state Legislature is on the verge of overriding the Governor’s veto of legislation that includes sizable pay raises for state and legislative leaders. Their actions on this front will answer the democracy question. Since legislators can’t raise their base pay, the hikes are limited to leadership positions in the form of increased legislative stipends. Base pay increases are formulaic and tied to the state’s median household income. The Boston Globe reported on several questionable aspects of the bill. It contains an “emergency preamble,” which means the raises would take effect immediately. The legislation also includes pay hikes for the judiciary, which, due to a clause in the state Constitution, makes it challenging at best to reverse via initiative petition. And because committee chairs and other leadership positions have not yet been officially selected, legislators don’t need to worry about violating conflict of interest laws for voting on their own financial interests. […]

Our Government Transparency Resolutions for 2017

Although transparency was the expression of choice on Beacon Hill in 2016, the year fell short of what could have been a transformative period of government openness. Long overdue public records law reform was the most dramatic action taken by the Legislature in this vein, but compromise ultimately weakened what otherwise could have been very toothy legislation to advance the public’s interest. Nevertheless, progress was made. Pioneer Institute has long supported many elements of the enacted legislation, including subjecting the MBTA Retirement Board to public records law, making its operations transparent, establishing a public records officer for every agency, promoting electronic records in response to requests, imposing stronger penalties on delinquent agencies, promoting electronic disclosure, and reducing costs to obtain public records. Historically, Massachusetts has ranked at or near […]

Public Records Reform: Our Take

The public records bill that was signed into law by Governor Baker last week and takes effect January 1, 2017 contains significant improvements to existing law and will no doubt improve the Commonwealth’s poor national rankings for government transparency.  The legislators who crafted it have done the state a service. But there is more work to do – Massachusetts should hold the highest ranking.  Transparency, after all, measures the health and vibrancy of our democracy. Pioneer Institute has long supported many elements of the bill, including subjecting the MBTA Retirement Board to public records law and making its operations transparent, establishing a public records officer for every agency, promoting electronic records in response to requests, imposing stronger penalties on delinquent […]

OpEd: Shine a light upon MBTA pension fund

By Mary Z. Connaughton and Charles Chieppo Guest Columnists Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle, the Milford Daily News, New Bedford Standard-Times, and The Lowell Sun. It would be easy just to shake your head and turn the page upon learning that the MBTA Retirement Fund (MBTARF) is underfunded by nearly $868 million. Unfortunately, you cannot. Every year, the pension plan receives tens of millions of state dollars that flow through the MBTA. The T, in turn, has a contractual obligation to bankroll three quarters of any shortfall. Read this entire article in The Berkshire Eagle, the Milford Daily News and the New Bedford Standard-Times.

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

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 […]

Our Government Transparency Resolutions for 2016

While it’s possible that 2016 will see an historic surge in policies and laws that promote transparency in Massachusetts, the odds are we won’t see a quantum leap. But as we dig deeper into the draft of the public records reform bill released by the Senate yesterday, we are encouraged that, after decades of inaction, Beacon Hill is more tuned in to the public’s demand for transparency – but there is much more work to do. With Massachusetts ranking at or near rock bottom nationally in terms of open government, many are eager to shed the dark veils that mar our governmental processes so the state can assume its rightful place as a leader in good government. As we have traditionally […]

Massachusetts Needs Its Own CBO

State Senator Jamie Eldridge is on to something.  The State House News Service recently reported that he filed a bill to bring greater transparency to the legislative process by establishing an agency similar to the Congressional Budget Office to put a concrete price tag on legislation before it is passed.  This is an idea Pioneer has long held to be of great merit – so much so that we included it in our recently published Agenda For Leadership. While the details of the bill differ somewhat from those in our proposal, we agree with Senator Eldridge – there needs to be an independent office to perform this vital function. Pioneer believes the office must be truly independent – not an […]

A Step Forward on Meaningful Public Records Reform?

Yesterday’s Boston Globe editorial has it right – the time for the legislature to act on meaningful public records reform is now, while at least a modicum of momentum remains for its enactment.  Waiting much longer likely signals the bill’s death knell. Sadly, though, if a bill does emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee it may be something far less than what we’d hope for.  The bill proposed by Rep. Peter Kocot, which drew swarms of government transparency enthusiasts to Beacon Hill to testify in its support, contained meaningful tools to promote open government.  Among them: penalties for untimely compliance, reduced costs for requestors, requirements for digital responses and provisions for agencies to reimburse legal fees to those […]

Our Letter to the Open Meeting Advisory Commission

Public trust and citizen engagement is fundamental in a healthy government.  Transparency engenders both. The Massachusetts legislature is one of the minority of state legislatures in the country where open meeting law doesn’t apply.  In fact, according to a 2011 study by the Reporters’ Committee of Freedom of the Press, it’s one of only 19 legislatures in the nation that isn’t bound to give the public access to its meetings. Perhaps even more noteworthy, according to the same study, is that Massachusetts is one of only six states where state legislatures are not subject to both open meeting and public records law.  In this day and age of transparency, we think more openness in the legislature will promote public trust […]

A Pretty Much Guaranteed Free Ride

There’s no such thing as a free ride. Ask any accountant and he or she will tell you that there’s always a cost involved. Some businesses give free samples to market their products – a cost to grow revenue.  Others give their products or services away because of inadequate controls. The MBTA falls into the latter category. There is a growing buzz about sporadic fare collection on the commuter rail.  Riders may or may not be charged because of the number of conductors or riders on any given train. Non-pass holding riders know the odds well – in time, they’ll get to work or home without forking over a dime. It’s a waiting game. But there are some pretty much […]

6 Ways to Improve Government Transparency

Mary Connaughton, Pioneer Institute’s Director of Government Transparency, submitted testimony on May 26, 2015, before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, regarding government transparency on Bills H2755, H2804, S1700, H2732, H2758, H2772, H2822, H2717, S1633, S1641, S1676, S1638, H2802 (all of which advance government transparency). Download her testimony below:

There Is Little Appeal to the Current Use of Binding Arbitration at the T

Eliminating final and binding arbitration at the MBTA is key part of Governor Baker’s reform proposal.  His bill does not call for ending collective bargaining and arbitration at the T, but instead for applying the same collective bargaining/arbitration law that applies to other public employee unions at state agencies and municipalities, including at police and fire departments. The Governor’s task force explained it this way: The MBTA has the only public union in the Commonwealth with binding arbitration settlements which are not subject to approval (i.e. by legislative, board, or municipality). The current collective bargaining process creates inefficiencies and has delayed recent legislative reforms.  Many existing labor contracts are automatically extended until a new agreement is reached (‘evergreen provisions’), exposing […]

Connaughton, Sivolella: Challenging the Legislature’s Secrecy

By Mary Z. Connaughton and John Sivolella Guest Columnists This article originally appeard in the Milford Daily News. Read it in its entirety. Posted Apr. 19, 2015 at 7:13 AM There is a lot of justifiable talk about the need for government transparency these days, but the concept is far from new. In fact, the first Massachusetts transparency laws date back to 1851. It was in that year when the notion of government records shifted from being the property of government to belonging to the public. In 1973, the state legislature expanded the definition of what constituted a public record and in 1975, it enacted open meeting laws. Together, these transparency laws were meant to promote a more effective, accountable […]

Public Left in Dark on Carmen’s Union Contract

Background Over the past two months, Pioneer Institute has focused substantial resources on analyzing the MBTA’s operations, finances, pension system and governance (leadership and accountability).  A key piece of our work has included comparisons of the Authority to other American transit systems.  We have provided comparisons to all systems, but have focused on like or peer systems.  We have also progressed from system-wide (all-mode) analyses to in-depth, mode-specific research. Prior Findings Using transit agency peers as defined by Integrated National Transit Database Analysis System (INTDAS), Pioneer debunked the myth that the MBTA is underfunded.  We’ve shown that the T expanded faster than any other system since 1991, the earliest year for which information is available in the National Transit Database, […]

And What About the T’s Retirement Costs?

Pension and other post-employment benefit (OPEB) costs significantly impact the MBTA’s financial position.  There’s been much talk about the T’s retirement costs but relatively little about how those costs and their funding rank among other large transit systems.  The MBTA has not set assets aside to fund OPEB obligations and is underfunding its pension costs. Neither is unusual, but what sets the T is apart is that it is significantly underfunding both. We reviewed each of the following systems’ 2013 audited financial statements to obtain data (not all systems have yet made 2014 statements available) Here’s how the T compares with pension information: *may include multiple pension plans The MBTA is the lowest of the largest transit systems in funding […]

Projections Matter and the MCCA Got it All Wrong

The Boston Business Journal was dead-on when Craig Douglas wrote, “the BCEC’s expansion plan is a case in point for why Massachusetts is in such a financial quagmire today. It’s had virtually no relevant financial vetting. Its cost projections are Big Dig-esque.” His case in point was the recent room-night figures reported in the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s annual report.  “In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the BCEC’s slate of events directly generated 264,669 hotel room nights — its second lowest 12-month total since 2007. The Hynes generated another 208,000, or half of what it managed to book in 2001.” Charlie Chieppo, the master of all things Convention Center, put the grim hard numbers into further context in a […]

Time to Fine Keolis

My train was on time this morning, no T-alerts popped into my email and, at long last, I enjoyed an express trip to Boston.  For that, I am delighted. Still, we can’t let the last couple of woeful months on the commuter rail melt away like the snow. MBTA commuter rail trains were late 72 percent of the time during morning rush hours in February, even though a much limited train schedule was implemented during the second half of the month. Delayed and cancelled trains exacted heavy tolls on commuters, employers and families. With near-record snow fall and freezing temperatures, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the system. Keolis, which operates commuter rail for the T, blamed bad weather for failing signals, switches […]

Pioneer’s Transparency Update: Sunshine Week Edition

To some, it may seem insignificant in that police departments have wide discretion in responding to public records requests, or that a school district can charge exorbitant fees to the public for document requests. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that state agencies routinely respond to public records requests well after the mandated ten days, or that our state legislature exempted itself from sunshine laws. But when you view government transparency through a wider lens, these seemingly minute events or business-as-usual exemptions take on grave collective significance. Our democracy is only as strong as our will to hold government accountable.  Lack of disclosure stunts the public discourse that is essential in a government of the people, by the people and for the people. […]

How is Keolis Fined for Late Commuter Rail Trains?

Your toes are numb, the faces around you sullen and the service alert on your phone says the next train will arrive at a different time than the LED screen overhead.  The train you planned on taking to work broke down and was cancelled.  You’d warm up at the local diner if you knew the next train was delayed by 67 minutes like the LED screen said, but is missing it worth the gamble? Traveling by commuter rail defies predictability these days.   Thankfully, the MBTA toughened the penalty clause enforcement with its contract with Keolis, the new commuter rail operator.  Heavy fines for poor performance have already made headlines.  The fear of further penalties should incentivize better performance. But will […]

Pioneer’s Transparency Update: “Sunshine Week” Edition

While sunshine in government operations should be a 365-day calling, the dedication of this week gives focus to the necessity of transparency in a healthy democracy, the success of which is dependent upon actively engaged citizens. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”  That statement that should apply to all governments. And that’s why we find it so troubling that our state legislature continues to shield itself from open meeting law, public records law and audits by the duly elected state auditor.  Legislators spend our money and make laws that impact on daily lives. Yet we, whom they represent, remain in the dark Once again during Sunshine Week, we took a look back at Pioneer’s […]

Step it up, UMASS

You’ve come a long way, baby! Or maybe not. It’s been 42 years since President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law. While the legislation was enacted to ban gender discrimination in educational programs, over time it became a game changer for school-based athletic programs. School girls and young college women seized the opportunity to abandon the sidelines and join the game like never before. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, in 1972 only 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports compared to 2 out of 5 today. Female participation in college sports also grew markedly, increasing by 500%. Athletic excellence became a core value for women across the country. In 1972, the top female runner completed the […]

The Dog Ate DCF’s Report Card

It looks like the besieged folks down at the Division of Children and Families weren’t too happy about having to post their annual performance grades on the Governor’s Mass Results accountability web page this year. They thought they could pull a fast one by leaving off 11 of the 12 annual performance measures they established last year when they posted their self-reported performance evaluation. [quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]Given the horrific series of highly publicized administrative failures at DCF over the past year, Pioneer Institute decided to take a look at what grades the Governor’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ gave DCF on its 2013 performance measurements.[/quote] Under the Governor’s Mass Results program, each of his eight Secretaries were required […]

MassDOT’s Cost Savings Dead End

In a joint press release praising the Transportation Reform bill of 2009, House Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray wrote, “the final bill eliminates the Turnpike Authority, streamlines communications, and creates a more efficient and cost-effective system under a unifying agency called the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), potentially saving the Commonwealth up to $6.5 billion during the next 20 years.” Eighteen months later, Governor Patrick down-sized projected savings from $6.5 billion to $2 billion. In its 2010 report, “Transportation Reform – Year 1 – Transportation Finance Commission Scorecard and Cost Saving Summary.” MassDOT’s management wrote, “as we move into year two, MassDOT will continue to seek more savings, efficiencies and continue to reform the way in which we govern […]

When Is a Tax Not a Tax?

When is a tax not a tax? When no one pays it. That’s basically the case with Massachusetts’ voluntary 5.85 percent income tax rate. In 2011, the latest year for which information is available from the Department of Revenue (DOR), a tiny fraction of the 3.5 million tax filers opted to pay the increased rate, generating under $200,000 in additional tax revenue – less than chicken feed compared to a $32.5 billion budget. The number of truly liberal among us who shade the oval to pay an extra 0.6 percent of income to the state is spiraling downward, dropping from 2,727 filers in 2009 to 2,400 in 2010 and to 1,737 in 2011. And it turns out that a hefty […]

Boston Herald op-ed: Legislature must open up on spending

Legislature must open up on spending  Monday, April 1, 2013 By: Mary Z. Connaughton, Adam Campbell Why would the Legislature spend $525 on a tailor, $1,050 on limousine service and $59,000 at WGBH last year? And the numbers get even bigger. How about over $1 million on consulting services, with close to half of that going to five different law firms in 2012? What cases are the attorneys working on? Questions abound when it comes to the Legislature’s spending. Thanks to Massachusetts’ Public Records Law, the public can get almost unlimited information, including detailed vendor invoices, from the government. That’s exactly what should happen in a government of, by and for the people. The law even requires a speedy response — […]

What would you do with a half-billion dollars?

The next time you’re watching those dollars ring up at the pump, think about this: for every gallon you pump, the federal government gets 18.4 cents and the state government gets 21 cents for gasoline taxes. Did you know you’re also taxed another 2.5 cents per gallon to reimburse costs related to underground storage tank removal? Based on the state’s own estimate, that 2.5 cents translates to about $75 million per year.  With the 2.5 cent tax in place for the last 10 years, that’s about $750 million collected. The department of revenue claims that only about $209 million of the tax collected so far went towards clean-up. Is the difference a blank check for the State House? If so, […]

Pioneer’s Transparency Update: “Sunshine Week” Edition

With all the scandals that plague the Massachusetts State House, you would think the state legislature would scream reform after getting an “F” as its latest transparency grade from the Sunlight Foundation. Like the Sunlight Foundation, Pioneer Institute has long-promoted better public access to happenings under the Golden Dome, but a heap of work is still needed to disperse the fog that lingers. So this Sunshine Week, as we reflect on how the lack transparency fosters public mistrust, let’s look back at Pioneer’s transparency work since Sunshine Week 2012. What “ethics” reform?   Pioneer attempted to calculate the amount of contributions made to legislators by lobbyists who had a stake in the healthcare cost-containment legislation passed in 2012.  Conclusion: Sadly, the information on reports […]