Top 10 Government Transparency Resolutions for 2018

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We hear the word transparency a lot these days. Whether it’s the public demanding it or public figures claiming to embody it, transparency is rightly viewed as an admirable pursuit. When it comes to government, transparency fosters civic engagement and promotes public trust. Openness in government is the cornerstone of a healthy, vibrant democracy.

In 2016, Beacon Hill took some steps to promote transparency with public records law reform, but fell short of what Pioneer had hoped for. The Commonwealth continues to advance in terms of spending transparency and, as Pioneer reported, Massachusetts municipalities were more transparent than their national peers when it came to disclosing the details of their bids for Amazon’s second headquarters – kudos to them! There was also a sense of optimism when Rebecca Murray was appointed in 2017 as the Supervisor of Public Records. But in other areas, the state showed little improvement.

A lack of transparency goes hand in hand with corruption. In 2017, we learned of the alleged actions of former State Senator Brian Joyce, who was indicted for using his office to improve his own lot rather than that of his constituents.

Historically, Massachusetts has ranked at or near rock bottom nationally in terms of open government. Is it any wonder that scandals continue to plague Beacon Hill? We look forward to reviewing the next rankings from the Center for Public Integrity and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to see if the public records reform legislation improved our appalling position relative to the rest of the country in terms of transparency. In any case, there is still much work to be done.

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.

Post All Legislators’, Candidates’, and Policymakers’ Statements of Financial Interests Online

Given the alleged actions of former State Senator Joyce, this is our number one hope for improved transparency in 2018. Massachusetts is among a minority of states that do not post Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) online.  Under the current process, all requests for SFIs go through the State Ethics Commission, which then provides the name of the requester to the public figure being scrutinized, which discourages public oversight.  The 2016 public records law failed to address this and only allowed SFI requests and the State Ethics Commission’s transmittal of them to the requester to be done through email, provided 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 modern day valuations since the form is woefully outdated. Here is an example from where the filer is supposed to disclose real estate values:

Assessed value of Real Estate:

·         $1,001 to 5,000

·         $5,001 to 10,000

·         $10,001 to 20,000

·         $20,001 to 40,000

·         $40,001 to 60,000

·         $60,001 to 100,000

·         $100,001 or more


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 their own.


Eliminate Governor’s Office “Executive Order” Privilege

Few have likely heard of Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, but over the last two decades this 1997 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling has been interpreted by each of our state’s governors to empower their respective offices to fulfill public records requests “at the office’s discretion.” As with the Legislature’s broad exemption, the 2016 public records law did not lift the governor’s blanket exemption but asked the special legislative commission to study the governor’s and judicial branch’s exemption and report back by December 30, 2017. The deadline has since been extended. In September 2016, Pioneer sent a letter to Governor Baker asking him to take bold action on this front. The Governor failed to respond.


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.”

The laws that apply to municipalities and the rest of state government should also apply to the Legislature.  The new law failed to address this exemption and only established a special legislative commission to look into the issue further.  We had looked forward to reading the commission’s report that was supposed to be submitted to the House and Senate Clerks’ Offices by December 30, 2017. Unfortunately, the deadline has quietly been extended to December 1, 2018.


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. In 2015, State Senator Jamie Eldridge introduced legislation that contained a feature that is similar to our proposal.

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, including the assumptions behind it, on its website on a timely basis. To ensure independence, the Inspector General should be limited to a single six-year term without the possibility of reappointment.


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 the 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.


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.


School Building Authority Portal

School districts should understand where they stand with respect to other districts in competition for limited funds to build or improve facilities. The School Building Authority (SBA) can make this easy by building a public transparency tool that tracks grant requests, reports the final scoring points earned on each proposal and the amount of money, if any, ultimately released to the district.


Include Invoices and Contracts as Part of Massachusetts CTHRU Open Records Platform

When Massachusetts launched its new records platform in 2016, the state improved government spending transparency. The lower maintenance costs and user-friendliness of the site made it a meaningful upgrade to the pre-existing Open Checkbook website. The site vastly improves the public’s ability to understand state spending by providing comprehensive details about the budget to anyone with an internet connection. Nationally, Massachusetts is highly ranked when it comes to 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, and that anything less provides only the illusion of transparency. The new law did not eliminate this problematic exemption.


Require Disclosure of Per-Gallon State and Federal Gasoline Taxes on All Retail Gas Pumps in the State

Last week, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Massachusetts was $2.56. Included in that price are taxes that go to the state and the federal governments amounting to approximately $.45, or almost 18 percent of the total cost. Citizens are often unaware of how much gas tax they are paying. Requiring gas stations to post stickers disclosing federal and state taxes would improve transparency.


To learn more about our online transparency tools, visit:

MBTAAnalysis, MassOpenBooks, MassAnalysis, MassPensions, and MassReportCards.

Contact Mary Connaughton, Pioneer’s Director of Government Transparency, with any questions:


Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.