Sunshine Week 2020 – When Government Transparency Is More Important Than Ever

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As this surreal week comes to a close, Americans now more than ever appreciate the absolute necessity of government transparency. The details of governments’ response to COVID-19 and their basis for their decision-making at local, state, and federal levels must be at the forefront in the public sphere – our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

The foundation for public trust is open and accountable government. That is why so many of our local organizations like The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, Common Cause, the ACLU and, of course, Pioneer Institute stand united in their resolve to demand and promote government transparency.

The Boston Globe may have said it best in today’s editorial: “Transparency by our public officials breeds credibility. And where there is credibility and openness and truth-telling, people will listen and will follow — and in the days ahead that may mean the difference between life and death.”

COVID-19 has overshadowed what was supposed to be Sunshine Week, but vigilance on behalf of open government is even more crucial during times like these, when the public has limited access. That’s one of the reasons Pioneer launched our “COVID-19 Roundup,” to keep tabs on our public and private sector leaders during this crisis. But government transparency is important at all times.

Each year during Sunshine Week, Pioneer reviews some of its recent work to increase public accountability in Massachusetts government. Our objective is for the Commonwealth to rank among the nation’s most transparent states. Below we share some of Pioneer’s efforts to help bring about this goal:

Pioneer Institute has made its voice heard in the state legislature on healthcare reform.

In response to the state Secretary of Health and Human Services’ op-ed indicating that Massachusetts would move toward rate-setting for drugs, Pioneer Senior Fellow Bill Smith placed an op-ed reply the very next day, which has tempered the initial proposal from the administration. Value-based pharmaceutical pricing, which rewards companies for innovations while keeping costs reasonable for consumers, was adopted by the Administration. Other healthcare reform initiatives championed by Pioneer include state provision of “drug coupons” and incentivizing pharmacies to pass on negotiated pricing benefits to patients.

Statements of Financial Interest (SFIs) are far too onerous to obtain from policymakers.

During the year, Pioneer advanced transparency by educating the public on the challenges of obtaining SFIs, which are needed to show that policymakers are acting in the public interest, not their own interest. Just last week, we released an animated video comparing Massachusetts and Mississippi on public access to SFIs. Can you guess which state makes it easier?

In December, we released a web page that ranks each state based on public accessibility to SFIs. No need to guess here – Massachusetts ranked last.

How can it be that the Massachusetts state legislature isn’t subject to public records law? The answer is simple – it exempted itself decades ago when it enacted the law.

A Pioneer Institute column in the Boston Herald sums it all up: How can we keep them honest if they keep us in the dark? We believe that this exemption and the legislature’s self-exemption from Open Meeting Law violates our state’s constitution. Who knows, maybe someday someone will take the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

State boards make decisions that can either save or destroy lives. Their management practices deserve a second look.

In June 2019, a Massachusetts driver, who should have lost his license long ago, killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire while driving a truck. Administrative delays at the Registry of Motor Vehicles prevented the agency from suspending his license earlier. Shortly after, Pioneer author David S. Clancy published a study evaluating ongoing reforms at the Merit Rating Board, which had an oversight role related to this tragedy. The same paper makes recommendations for expanding these reforms to other state agencies.

Pioneer Research Director Greg Sullivan is a non-stop transparency machine.

From revealing who had the true responsibility for UMass Boston’s budgetary woes, to proposing a Marshall Plan to fix the MBTA, to calling out ballooning state salaries, Greg is on top of it. And speaking of balloons, Greg even made national press when he stated that a legislative attempt to ban balloons was overkill. The man simply won’t stop until we get it right in Massachusetts. Go get ‘em, Greg!

MassWatch, Pioneer’s data suite of transparency tools, got a new member in 2019: MassEconomix.

The state’s data on job growth, industry sector performance, and the geography of businesses is often scattered and rarely interactive. MassEconomix solves that by putting time series data in one place. The site allows users to sort by year, industry, location, and more. Now, local and regional economic development and elected officials can better serve their constituents with up-to-date insights on business trends.

Oh, and be on the lookout for our newly revised MassReportCards – soon to be released on MassWatch!

Special interest groups dictate the Commonwealth’s occupational licensing laws, costing the state millions in would-be tax revenue.

Sure, licensing doctors, therapists, and other such professionals is necessary to ensure the health and safety of consumers. But in Massachusetts, many others, sometimes even fortune tellers, need a professional license as well. Last November, Pioneer Akin Fellow Alex Muresianu published a study shining a light on the fiscal dangers of excessive licensing regulations. Learn more about how to reform occupational licensing practices in Massachusetts by reading the report.

Yep, another megaproject is coming to Boston. Hold tight to your steering wheel!

Many people still are unaware of what Boston commuters from points west are in for in 2023 and beyond. Pioneer is all over this one. It would help if MassDOT posted ALL the public comment letters online that were received relative to the Scoping Report on the project.

Pioneer Institute has proposed an at-grade alternative to MassDOT’s partially elevated design 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 facilitate development for about 150 acres in Allston. 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 of the construction period. And there will be work-zone slowdowns to boot.

MassDOT should hasten other planned improvements along the Worcester Commuter Rail line and on the Mass Pike, including adopting Pioneer’s recommendation to immediately reconstruct the aging I-90/Route 128 interchange, which is eight years older than the BU viaduct. Read Pioneer’s other recommendations here.

We’re making schools work for children again.

The state’s methods for determining school performance and rankings bias state funding formulas against charter schools and ignore administrators’ lack of accountability in chronically underperforming districts. With the state’s NAEP scores slipping, Pioneer Institute has supported funding bonuses for school districts that improve accountability and successfully implement needed reforms. In particular, districts must focus on fulfilling our children’s evolving needs, not making unrealistic promises on pension debts. State officials cannot continue to use vague and error-prone analytical tools for keeping track of student performance. School finance reform should focus on leveling the playing field between high-income and low-income districts, which will decrease the volatility of funding metrics in many districts while making it easier to establish charter schools where they’re most needed.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board has improved operations and capital spending projects at the T recently. But their work is far from over.

The term of the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB), which is largely responsible for reining in the T’s finances since 2015, ends in June 2020. But the T still has billions of dollars in capital projects on the table. Legislative action is needed to extend the life of this crucial administrative body, and Pioneer has kept up the pressure on Governor Baker to do just that.

Government transparency isn’t the only transparency we need.

With all the talk of healthcare price transparency these days, Pioneer’s Senior Fellow in Healthcare, Barbara Anthony, found that consumers want more pricing information, but don’t know where or how to obtain it.

Several casinos have opened in Massachusetts over the last few years, but the state doesn’t have enough tax revenue to show for it.

Pioneer wrote a blog last month that highlights the gap between corporate revenue promises at our casinos and the fiscal reality. Reforming casino taxation practices would make revenue less volatile and make more realistic revenue projections known in advance. An ongoing public records request submitted by Pioneer to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission also aims to uncover initial revenue projections at Plainridge Park through fiscal year 2020, offering a direct comparison between casino owners’ PowerPoint slides and real life.

Speaking of public records requests…

Pioneer Institute has submitted numerous public records requests over the past year to make information public in a way that serves the public good. Town clerks, community colleges, the MBTA, the Municipal Police Training Committee, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and others have received our requests, all of which we use in our own publications to improve the accountability of government and enhance public information. After all, the best way to get informed about government accountability in the Commonwealth is to kick the tires on applications for public information.

At Pioneer, promoting government transparency is a year-round pursuit. Check out Pioneer’s 2020 Resolutions for the New Year. Also, be sure to visit MassWatch, Pioneer’s suite of online transparency tools. Be on the lookout soon for our newly revised MassReportCards site.

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! Take, for example, intern Ana Rijal. She used one of Pioneer’s transparency tools,, to find the state 3rd-party vendors that made the most taxpayer money in 2018.

Cole Kroninger used Pioneer’s MassWatch suite to analyze the local public retirement programs with the highest unfunded liabilities.

Similarly, Harris Foulkes argued in favor of capital investments in the MBTA’s facilities, and Madeleine Cammarano used to look at which cities and towns accept the most state revenue per capita.

And what about the astronomical salaries at UMass Medical School? Check out what Roger Perry Transparency Intern Paige Anderson had to say using

We look forward to updating you next Sunshine Week in March 2021!

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