Our Government Transparency Resolutions for 2019

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Government transparency has already suffered two major blows in 2019. First, a special legislative commission charged with making recommendations on the legislature’s and governor’s exemptions from public records law failed to reach consensus on a long-awaited report on improvements.>

Second, Mr. Transparency himself, State Comptroller Tom Shack, the driver behind CTHRU, the state’s highly acclaimed spending transparency website, announced he was leaving state service. The recent state police overtime scandals came to light when journalists reviewed CTHRU.

Historically, Massachusetts has ranked at or near rock bottom nationally in terms of open government, with one of the chief reasons being the legislature’s exemptions from open meeting and public records law. It’s time to change that and it will be up to the public to demand greater transparency from their representatives and senators.

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.

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.


Post All Legislators’, Candidates’, and Policymakers’ Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) Online Allowing Anonymous Public Access

While the State Ethics Commission (SEC) now posts SFIs online, online access still requires providing proof of identity. The Commission is still required by law to provide 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. The SFI database website should operate the same way as the State Comptroller’s CTHRU site: anonymous online access.

The State Ethics Commission should update the disclosures to reflect modern day valuations, since the current 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
Yep – nonsensical amounts.
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 interests.
Develop a More 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, MassCompareCare.gov, allows consumers to search for any one of 250 different procedures and find the average price paid to providers by insurers.
The portal should be easily accessible and allow consumers a user-friendly search to compare prices among providers – at present, it is not. CHIA should also include in this portal, the average out of pocket cost for consumers for a particular consumer at each provider.
CHIA has also released publicly the “wholesale” data behind these 250 procedures. This data shows average prices, consumer out of pocket costs, and total prices paid to providers for these 250 procedures. The spreadsheets, however, are very large, complicated and difficult to manipulate in order to extract consumer friendly healthcare price information. There should be legislative and executive branch support to make this site much more consumer friendly so that consumers, businesses, public advocates, the media and industry watchdogs can more easily identify wildly different healthcare prices that exist in Massachusetts for the same procedures. An improved site would facilitate competition and enable rational price decision-making by all.
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.

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.

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 competing 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
As we stated earlier, we are very sad to see State Comptroller Tom Shack leave public service, but the CTHRU spending transparency site is a testament to his dedication to open government.  We hope the new State Comptroller with continue in this spirit. 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.

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 regular gasoline in Massachusetts was $2.40. Included in that price are state and federal taxes of about 45 cents, just over 19 percent of the total cost. Citizens are often unaware of how much gas tax they are paying. Requiring gas stations to post stickers provided by the state disclosing federal and state taxes would improve transparency.

Higher Education Reserve Transparency

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 lack of transparency of these off-budget accounts led to the UMass-Boston financial crisis last year. Transparency is one sure way to protect from such a calamity.

Municipal Pension Plan Funding Schedule Disclosure
Each public retirement board should post the funding schedules to pay off unfunded pension obligations by year on the related city or town’s website and provide the schedules to town meeting members, city councilors, and taxpayers as a component of operating budget consideration.
To learn more about our online transparency tools, visit Pioneer’s  MassWatch. Our sites include:

MBTAAnalysis, MassOpenBooksMassAnalysis, and MassPensions. Psst – more transparency websites to come!

Contact Mary Connaughton, Pioneer’s Director of Government Transparency, with any questions: mary@pioneerinstitute.org.

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.