Pioneer Institute’s Government Transparency Resolutions 2020

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In 2019, Pioneer Institute continued our work of advocating for fully accountable and efficient governance in the Commonwealth, in part by advocating for reform on Statements of Financial Interest and K-12 education, calling for audits of UMass Boston’s financial disclosures, censuring the state legislature for exempting itself from public records laws, shining a spotlight on underfunded MBTA pension liabilities, and fighting for improved access to healthcare price information.

Still, only modest transparency reforms have passed on the state level since the Center for Public Integrity gave the Massachusetts government a D+ for accountability in 2015. In 2020, Pioneer’s work to promote more open government is far from over.

As we do each January, Pioneer shares the resolutions it hopes state leaders will adopt to bring government actions into better focus and invigorate our democracy with heightened public engagement. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Increase transparency around the meaning and use of Student Growth Percentiles.
This Pioneer study analyzed Massachusetts’ use of Student Growth Percentiles (SGP), a metric of ambiguous validity, to determine school district performance rankings, which in turn influence net school spending caps and the ability of new charter schools to enter the market and meet school choice demand. SGP may be an informative measure, but its margin of error is simply too wide to be used for high-stakes policy decisions. No matter how it is used, the state should be transparent about its limitations and work to educate all stakeholders about its applications, and potential consequences, in terms of evaluating district performance.
Ensure that the $10 billion-plus state and local investment in public K–12 education is spent wisely and efficiently by reconstituting an authentic and independent district and school audit function.
In 1993, the state created an independent office authorized to conduct audits of local school districts. By 2008, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (EQA) audited 50 school districts annually, analyzing MCAS data, leadership, curricula, teacher and student evaluations, and finances. However, the Patrick administration replaced EQA with a smaller, significantly less active oversight body inside the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Pioneer has continued to advocate high standards for Massachusetts’ schools, and the state needs a robust education accountability office that operates independently from the department. After an abysmal year of NAEP testing for Massachusetts, what better time is there to reinstate such an office?
Establish a web portal for the School Building Authority.
School districts should understand where they stand with respect to other districts competing for limited funds to build or improve facilities. The School Building Authority can make this easy by building a public transparency tool that tracks grant requests, including reporting the final point total earned on each proposal and the amount of money, if any, ultimately released to the district.
Improve transparency of higher education reserve accounts.
Massachusetts’ public higher education institutions should disclose the balances of each campus’s primary reserve account used to pay for campus-funded capital building projects and protect against operating budget shortfalls on a semi-annual basis. Errors in management and the lack of transparency of these off-budget accounts led to the UMass-Boston financial crisis last year. Transparency is one sure way to protect against such a calamity.
Disclose financing information for the I-90 Allston Multimodal project.
MassDOT’s initiative to replace a structurally deficient viaduct over a rail line with a new urban highway interchange and almost 4 million square feet of development in Allston is bound to come with a 10-figure price tag. Public comments by Pioneer recommended that the finance plan should be prepared in a transparent manner with significant public input. Furthermore, MassDOT’s November 2019 scoping report for the project makes little effort to compare construction durations or long-term costs across the several proposed design plans. Additional transparency on this project is of the utmost importance, as disruptions on the Mass Pike and Framingham/Worcester Commuter Rail line will likely drag on into the 2030s.
Provide transparency in the Commuter Rail’s on-time performance and capital project procedures.
A Pioneer report showed that by using different keywords to identify train delays, the MBTA Commuter Rail twitter account has been masking performance issues, despite being one of the only sources to track train arrivals and delays. MBTA Commuter Rail operating contractor Keolis is required to report on-time data for the trains running on MBTA property. However, they often package their data in generalized reports with daily, weekly, or monthly averages. In order to be fully accountable to commuters, Keolis and MassDOT should commit to offering real-time data tools for on-time performance that allow riders to verify that their train was recorded as late for state purposes. Keolis can also aid transparency by publishing reports on major capital projects in a similar, publicly accessible, one-stop format.
Pay-by-Plate Collections Transparency Tool.
The toll-paying public should know if their tolls are subsidizing other drivers who are using the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and harbor tunnels without a transponder and not paying their bills under the Pay-by-Plate (PBP) system. MassDOT should create a real-time tool that shows toll billing captured through transponders, tolls to be billed through PBP, and tolls that are not billed because of PBP errors. The tool should also show PBP toll collections, the amount not yet collected, and the amount of write-offs based on state of vehicle registration.
Public services and budgeting
Improve public access to financial statements of government officials.
new index released by Pioneer Institute in December ranked Massachusetts last on the transparency of its policies around Statements of Financial Interest among states that require their annual release. Reforms that would encourage accountability for officials susceptible to conflicts of interest include efforts to make the forms free and easy to view. As a further measure, requiring officials to submit the forms electronically would reduce administrative costs and improve searchability. The content of the forms themselves should also be updated to amend outdated income brackets and real estate disclosure policies.
Improve public understanding of public boards and their oversight functions.
A study released by Pioneer Institute in October analyzed the lack of oversight of the Merit Rating Board, a subdivision of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, following a fatal driving accident in June 2019. MRB failed to screen driver records that should have resulted in suspension of numerous out-of-state driver’s licenses. The MRB has committed to regular meetings to prevent future incidents going forward, but the nearly 700 other public oversight boards in Massachusetts shouldn’t wait for a fatal error to improve transparency.
Provide historical records of debt-funding schedules, including for state and local pension systems.
Studies by Pioneer, including this one on the state retirement system published in February 2019, have analyzed Massachusetts’ unsustainable growth in pension liabilities, as well as other sources of local and state debt. While the state and local systems have developed schedules for funding some of these debts, like unfunded pension liabilities, not all funding schedules are easily located or analyzed. The Commonwealth should house funding schedule records in a single directory, and publish the most current schedules as well as historical schedules approved within at least the past 10 years. In addition, this resource should also include documentation of other legislation regarding transfers of extraneous funding toward debts and liabilities.
Provide greater access to union information for members and non-members alike.
A series of studies conducted by Pioneer analyzed the relative opacity regarding union dues amounts required for membership, and regarding the breakdown of activities for which these funds are used. In the wake of Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled union membership cannot be compulsory as a term of employment, the amount and uses of union dues is a pressing issue for members and those considering membership. Each state and local union affiliate should be required to post requirements for membership to the public, including union dues amounts and budget documentation.
Include the State Legislature under the Definition of Public Body.
Under Massachusetts law, the state legislature is not considered a “public body” in the traditional sense, and therefore enjoys exemptions from open meeting and public records laws. Pioneer Institute believes this is unconstitutional. The state constitution says the legislature should be accountable to citizens “at all times.” In a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity, Massachusetts earned an F for public access to information, with one of the reasons cited as the legislature’s and governor’s exemptions from public records laws. The laws that apply to municipalities and the rest of state government should also apply to the legislature. Period.
Eliminate Governor’s Office “Executive Order” Privilege.
A curtain of darkness fell on the State House when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court published its opinion on Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council. Over the last two decades, this 1997 ruling has shielded each of our state’s governors, empowering their respective offices to fulfill public records requests “at the office’s discretion.” In 2016, Pioneer sent a letter to Governor Baker asking him to take bold action on this front. We have yet to hear his response.
Create the State Equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office.
We reaffirm our 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 involve spending. Legislation with an estimated financial impact of more than $1 million would be subject to the analysis. Establishing a Massachusetts office run by the Inspector General to independently assess bills with an expected budgetary impact in excess of $1 million would improve decision making and 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.
Ensure Objective Audits of State Legislature’s Budget.
As has been the practice for decades, the state legislature hires its own firm to perform a partial review of its books and records, giving the public a very limited view of its operations. An audit of the legislature should be conducted by the State Auditor and the results made public.
Include Invoices and Contracts as Part of Massachusetts’ CTHRU Open Records Platform.
Despite the state’s low rank in overall transparency, Massachusetts is highly ranked when it comes to agency spending transparency. Here’s a way for us to lead the nation: give the public access to what vendors are charging us and exactly what we’re being charged for. Having PDFs of invoices and contracts included in the online database would provide clarity and reduce the need for public records requests.
Eliminate the “Deliberative Process” Exemption to the Public Records Law.
One loophole, often abused because of its vagueness, is the “deliberative process” exemption, which prohibits citizens from gaining access to records related to a policy while it is being developed. Why are citizens not entitled to know what their elected and appointed officials are thinking as they formulate policy? We believe they are entitled to this information, and that anything less provides only the illusion of transparency.
Increase Awareness of a Consumer-Friendly Healthcare Transparency Portal Detailing Prices for Each Service and Provider.
The Massachusetts Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) holds a repository of healthcare prices actually paid by insurers and consumers to providers. Its website,, allows consumers to search for any one of 250 different procedures and find the average price paid to providers by insurers. Health insurance carriers also each have their own cost estimator tool, as is mandated by Ch. 224, that delivers similar information to their members. Although these platforms are accessible and allow consumers a user-friendly search to compare prices among providers – at present, not many are aware of its existence. Pioneer studies have shown that although 70% of consumers want to know the price only a third have made an effort to do so. Consumers must also be aware of their right to ask for and receive a price estimate for any procedure as is delineated in Ch. 224. Increased education efforts empower consumers to be cost-conscious and would facilitate competition and enable rational price decision-making by all.
Massachusetts should ban gag clauses on pharmacists.
Currently in Massachusetts, contracts between pharmacies and Pharmaceutical Benefit Managers (PBMs), who are often hired by insurers to process claims and negotiate discounts and rebates with pharmacies, allow clauses which prohibit pharmacists from informing consumers of generic options for certain drugs, and/or that other therapies could be purchased at a lower cost if paid for out-of-pocket rather than using their prescription insurance. As of May 2019, 33 states have enacted measures to prohibit such “gag clauses”, in support of price transparency of prescription drugs for consumers. Massachusetts should follow suit, and ban practices that prohibit pharmacists from being contractually obligated to withhold information regarding the price of any prescription drug or lower cost alternatives.
Economic Opportunity
Expand economic data available to the public.
Pioneer recently launched its newest public-facing data tool, Users can access data on jobs and business growth, for cities, regions, and the state, as well as industries. However, the Commonwealth should update its economic data website to allow users to see labor market trends and analyze them. Currently, users have to make a number of selections, limiting the scope of data that they can view at a time. This information prevents users from seeing longer term trends and drawing conclusions about economic indicators in the state.

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