Open and accountable government lays the foundation for public trust. That’s why so many local organizations, such as the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe, Commonwealth Magazine, Common Cause, the ACLU and, of course, Pioneer Institute, stand united in supporting it.
While government transparency is a year-round pursuit, Sunshine Week marks a unique opportunity to reflect on our past work and plan for our future work to weave this most necessary fabric of a free and healthy democracy.
This year, we are thrilled to have a new ally in this pursuit. Earlier in March, Pioneer Institute announced the formation of PioneerLegal, the first non-profit, public interest law firm of its kind in New England. One of its top three priorities is to champion transparent and accountable government that protects citizens’ rights. PioneerLegal will advance all of its priorities through legal research, filing amicus briefs and litigation.
Please enjoy some of Pioneer’s recommendations and highlights:
How can it be that the Massachusetts state legislature isn’t subject to public records law and open meeting laws? The answer is simple – it wrote the laws.
One of the most egregious actions of the Massachusetts Legislature was to exempt itself from the definition of “public body” as it pertains to transparency laws. How can we keep them honest if they keep us in the dark? We believe the legislature’s exemptions from Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law violate the state Constitution.
Pioneer contends that the legislature’s self-exemptions impede the public’s ability to exercise the rights conferred to it under the Massachusetts State Constitution. A public kept in the dark about critical policy decisions cannot hold its elected representatives accountable.
Article V of our state’s Declaration of Rights requires that the branches of government “at all times” be accountable to the people. Restricting the public’s access to legislative meetings and records fundamentally undermines that basic right.
Our Constitution goes so far as to vest the Commonwealth’s citizens with the right to “give instructions to their representatives.” The legislature’s lack of transparency negates the public’s ability to exercise this right because, of course, access is required to reasonably determine what ‘instructions’ should be made.
Who knows, maybe someday someone will take the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Those Statements of Financial Interests tell us what exactly?
Massachusetts ranks last in the public’s access to policy makers annual Statements of Financial Interests (SFI’s) among the 48 states that require them. The SFI’s are critical in providing information that allows the public to feel confident that legislators and policy makers are acting in the public interest rather than their own. Yet those who seek access to them face obstacles. They must either visit the State Ethics Commission in person with a photo ID or upload a picture of the ID online so the commission can verify the requestor’s identity. Many states simply allow immediate, anonymous access. Additionally, the Ethics Commission reports the identity of those who access the forms to the filers themselves. We’d call that intimidation to avoid transparency. Finally, Massachusetts SFI forms have not substantially changed since the law went into effect in 1978. That, for instance, means that when disclosing real estate holdings, filers are asked to value the property using these long-outdated categories:
A bit out of touch?
What do you mean the legislature isn’t audited by the State Auditor? They hire their own auditors on our dime?
As has been the practice for decades, the state legislature bypasses the State Auditor and hires its own firm to perform a review of its books and records, giving the public limited insight to its operations because the audit report is shielded from public records law due to the legislature’s self-exemption. How can spending more money for an outside firm possibly be in the state’s interest and promote transparency? The State Auditor should audit the legislature and make the results public.
How much would that legislation really cost?
Pioneer reaffirms its proposal to advance true legislative transparency by creating a state version of the Congressional Budget Office. This independent office would conduct cost-benefit analyses for bills that would either raise revenue or cost money. Legislation with an estimated financial impact of more than $1 million would be subject to the analysis. Establishing a Massachusetts office run by the state’s Inspector General to independently assess bills with an expected budgetary impact in excess of $1 million would improve decision-making, accountability, and promote both efficiency and public trust. This office would be required to publish each analysis on its website in a timely manner and include the assumptions behind it. To ensure independence, the Inspector General should be limited to a single six-year term without the possibility of reappointment.
Pioneer Research Director Greg Sullivan, continues to be a one-stop transparency machine. Along with his side-kick, Andrew Mikula, we have quite the Dynamic Duo.
Pioneer is a one-stop shop when it comes to informing the public of risks posed by the proposed graduated income tax amendment. In November 2022, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution and levy a 4 percent surtax on annual personal income over $1 million. The Duo researched the experience of states imposing similar taxes, looked at how the tax will devastate Massachusetts’ economic competitiveness and harm retirees, homeowners and small businesses. They debunked the false narratives advanced by the tax’s proponents who portray it as affecting a small number of “millionaires,” remedying Massachusetts’ “regressive” tax regime and exclusively funding education and transportation. Finally, they examined the tax’s impact in a post-pandemic economy, where companies and employees are mobile, states compete for telecommuters, and federal tax policies continue to cap state and local tax deductibility and much more.
We want to make Boston schools work for children again.
Pioneer released a report recommending that Boston schools be placed into state receivership. The report summarizes the findings of MA DESE’s 2020 review of the Boston Public Schools, highlighting key findings around teaching and learning, operational, financial, and enrollment challenges the state identified. It also describes why, according to the report, BPS persistently struggles in these areas and how those struggles negatively impact students. Finally, the report describes several options Boston and the state have for rectifying the problems and helping BPS meet its constitutional and moral obligations to the students and families it serves. Ultimately, it recommends that the state place BPS in receivership, a controversial model that may be the district’s best hope for recovery. You can bet a receivership would bring BPS the accountability and transparency needed to ensure that it makes decisions that put students first.
Elder Care Covid Transparency
Senior Healthcare Fellow Barbara Anthony continues to advance the best interests of seniors by demanding transparency. As attention turns to functioning in a world in which the threat of severe illness or death from COVID is reduced, we can’t forget that government transparency is essential during pandemics.
Beginning in early Spring of 2020 and continuing to the present, Barbara has continued to push the Commonwealth to provide more transparency about deaths from COVID in Massachusetts eldercare facilities. Most recently, Barbara and Mary Connaughton co-authored an oped in WGBH News on the discrepancies in the state’s reporting of deaths in eldercare facilities and the state’s failure to explain such discrepancies. They called for answers as to why, depending on death definitions, there are either 6,000 or 9,000 deaths in nursing homes.
The public has a right to know. Barbara and Mary called for several steps to be taken, including an independent commission to examine the variables that resulted in the large number of COVID cases and deaths in state-regulated eldercare facilities. Pioneer recently filed a comprehensive Public Records Request, prepared by Barbara and David Clancy, with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Public, and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs for documents that would shed light on the questions concerning COVID deaths in nursing homes. Pioneer is currently in discussions with the state over these requests.
Not quite the Big Dig, but a megaproject looms over the western horizon.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation decided to pursue an at-grade alternative proposed by Pioneer for the Allston Multimodal Project, a billion-dollar effort to reroute the Massachusetts Turnpike over a former rail yard, reposition Soldiers Field Road, and create an improved bike path where the BU viaduct currently snakes through Allston. The project will also open up about 150 acres in Allston for development. Commuters are in for tremendous disruption for about a decade as the turnpike drops two travel lanes during construction and commuter rail service drops to a single track in the project area for half the construction period. And there will be work-zone slowdowns to boot.
MassDOT should provide the public with the plan to finance this megaproject and ensure the public that the Framingham/Worcester Commuter Rail line remains open on two-tracks throughout the project’s duration. We look forward to seeing detailed construction phasing for the project.
Government transparency isn’t the only transparency we need. Shining a light on discrimination against older and disabled patients with rare diseases and understanding drug pricing are a must
Director of Pioneer’s Life Sciences Initiative, Dr. Bill Smith, shed light on what’s really happening with prescription drug pricing so policy makers can be fully informed before passing legislation. He has also undertaken extensive research on some of the economic models used to value drug therapies and found that some of them may discriminate against older patients, patients with rare diseases and patients living with disabilities, among others. To further advance that effort, Pioneer has filed a public records request to examine the economic models used by MassHealth in deciding which drugs to make available to patients.
Dr. Smith also shined a bright light on the Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) methodology for assessing whether patients were valued highly enough to receive life-saving treatments. After a series of Pioneer papers indicating that the QALY methodology was problematic for certain vulnerable populations, opposition grew at the state and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services issued a report recommending that QALY and other related methodologies should be avoided because of “equity implications…for people of all ages with disabilities and chronic conditions.”
MassWatch – Pioneer’s Suite of Transparency Tools
Transparency is more critical than ever in a world where data is overwhelming and pervasive — data-driven, accountable research is sorely needed. Pioneer Institute champions educating Massachusetts citizens with cutting-edge data that is organized in an accessible manner to help residents understand the state economy like never before.
MassEconomix provides local, regional, and state data on employment, business, and industry trends. With the great work of Pioneer’s Liv Leone, this site includes some terrific updates!
MassAnalysis allows users to “benchmark” their communities with others in the state via comparisons by city, peer groups of cities, and metrics such as financial strength, crime, and education.
MBTAAnalysis provides the public with this research tool so residents can see how the MBTA stands up to other transit agencies. In some measures the MBTA exceeds our peers in operations and efficiency; in others, the T falls short. In any case, for our economy to prosper and quality of life to be high in the region, much focus needs to be placed on this essential organization.
MassOpenBooks puts the tools in your hands to find out what state employees’ make, who is getting what kind of pension and payments made by government agencies to businesses and people. With this site, you can obtain data about specific people or departments, make comparisons between departments and access a range of analytical tools. You can also view the number of employees by agency, tax credits doled out and the state’s revenue intake.
MassReportCards provides assessment data, financial information, demographics and more on every public school in the state.
MassIRSDataDiscovery equips residents with tax data, including income range and return trends, and taxpayer migration information.
MassPensions seeks to advance reforms that afford fair, sustainable retirement support, and provides data on performance and expenses of retirement boards, including Massachusetts state and teacher retirees.
Roger Perry Transparency Interns
The future of government transparency will be in good hands. Through Pioneer’s Roger Perry Internship program we are training the transparency enthusiasts of tomorrow.
Our interns and fellows uncover issues and write about a wide range of topics. Today’s college students never cease to amaze us; young eyes are indeed fresh eyes!
And Nathan Bornstein used Pioneer’s MassEconomix site to look at employment trends during the pandemic in the state’s more touristy areas, while Maida Raza looked at the high cost of housing in Boston.
We look forward to updating you next Sunshine Week in March 2023!