Boston Herald: Mass. must turn up lights

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Mass. must turn up lights
By Tom Nash and Jason Turesky | Friday, November 30, 2012 | | Op-Ed

Transparency was the name of the game on Beacon Hill in 2009, when ethics reform legislation was passed to shed further light on the interaction between legislators and lobbyists.

But the new law lacks a key component. The public still can’t figure out who’s a lobbyist and who’s not when reviewing campaign contribution reports filed with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Pioneer Institute attempted to answer a basic question: How much money was spent to influence the health care cost-containment bill passed earlier this year?

Pioneer used both the secretary of state’s lobbyist database and reports filed with OCPF to review the campaign finance reports of key legislators involved with the bill. The drill was to identify lobbyists and others in the health care industry with a stake in the outcome.

Since health care accounts for 18 percent of the Massachusetts economy and 40 percent of the state budget, the reform law arguably affects more people than any other bill that has passed through the State House in the last two years. In a healthy democracy, transparent decision-making should be a given, especially in such a key policy area.

But the study revealed a wide gulf between what should be and what is. Shaky record-keeping obscured the money trail.

Differences between the two sets of reports ranged from major gaps, like not identifying contributors as lobbyists, to smaller issues such as misspelling names and incorrectly labeling contributors.

The 2009 reform established strict but confusing lobbyist registration regulations. The penalty for non-compliance is a fine of up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison. Given those stakes, many people are now registering as lobbyists as a precautionary measure.

But even with strict registration regulations in place, lobbyists’ contributions can still go legally undisclosed on OCPF reports. A candidate is only required to report the “primary” occupation of a donor who gives $200 or more, even if the donor’s secondary occupation is registered lobbyist.

If a lobbyist gives a candidate less than $200 in a calendar year, the campaign has no obligation to report the donor’s occupation or employer. Total contributions to House Speaker Robert DeLeo from Jan. 1 to Oct. 12 amounted to $282,300. The total under $200 was $41,624. Reporting lobbyists’ contributions regardless of the amount is an obvious step in providing a full picture of a campaign’s finances.

Given Beacon Hill’s track record on ethics, more disclosure is better. The new laws simply don’t go far enough when it comes to contributions.

If Massachusetts is serious about transparency, state leaders should provide one-stop campaign contribution shopping.

If a main purpose of the reform was to make the relationship between lobbyists and legislators more clear, why is it so difficult for the public to weigh those relationships?

Tom Nash is news editor at MuckRock, a Boston-based, online public records request service that is partnering with Pioneer Institute on its government transparency initiative. Jason Turesky is a Pioneer intern.

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