Beacon Hill Needs to Get This Right – Right Now

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No one said it better than Justice Louis Brandeis. “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.”  If today’s story on former State Senator Brian Joyce, indicted today for allegedly collecting about $1 million in bribes and kickbacks, isn’t a wake-up call for the legislators to fix the sad state of government transparency in Massachusetts, they will forever remain in a state of blissful slumber.

Pioneer Institute has been a leading voice for open and accountable government in Massachusetts. Statements of Financial Interest, or SFIs for short, are a cornerstone of political ethics: All state and county officials, as well as political candidates, are required to annually disclose their private business associations and other financial interests. The reasoning behind mandating the disclosures is straightforward anti-cronyism. For example, if a candidate owns a sanitation company and is seeking an office that involves awarding sanitation contracts, voters should be aware of it. There’s no good reason to keep that information secret … unless you happen to be the office seeker who owns a sanitation company.

Massachusetts is one of a minority of states that do not post Statements of Financial Interests online. Under the current process, all requests for the SFIs go through the State Ethics Commission which then provides the name of the requester to the public figure being scrutinized – discouraging public oversight.

Wouldn’t it better serve the public interest to learn about candidates quickly and through the relative anonymity of your laptop at the kitchen table? Most states agree and, therefore, post this information online.  Massachusetts should do so as well. The recent public records law failed to address this and only allows SFI requests and the State Ethics Commission’s transmittal of them to the requester to be done through email, if the requester provides identification and his or her affiliation – a major shortcoming.  SFIs should be treated the same as any other public records.

The State Ethics Commission should revamp the disclosures so they reflect the change in the value of money since the form is woefully outdated.  Here is an example from the form where the filer is supposed to disclose real estate values:

Assessed value of Real Estate:

o $1,001 to 5,000

 o $ 5,001 to 10,000

 o $10,001 to 20,000

 o $20,001 to 40,000

 o $40,001 to 60,000

 o $60,001 to 100,000

 o $100,001 or more

What may have been relevant in 1978 when the form was created is almost comical today. Pioneer also wrote an open letter to the State Ethics Commission seeking improvements in disclosures.

In light of the scandals that continue to plague Beacon Hill, it’s time government transparency is taken seriously on Beacon Hill. Improving the relevance of financial disclosures as well as our ability to access them would be a leap forward in ensuring that public officials act in our interest rather than in their own.