Boston Herald op-ed: Legislature must open up on spending

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Legislature must open up on spending

 Monday, April 1, 2013

Why would the Legislature spend $525 on a tailor, $1,050 on limousine service and $59,000 at WGBH last year?

And the numbers get even bigger.

How about over $1 million on consulting services, with close to half of that going to five different law firms in 2012? What cases are the attorneys working on?

Questions abound when it comes to the Legislature’s spending.

Thanks to Massachusetts’ Public Records Law, the public can get almost unlimited information, including detailed vendor invoices, from the government. That’s exactly what should happen in a government of, by and for the people. The law even requires a speedy response — in 10 days’ time. The underlying concept is that citizen involvement promotes a healthy democracy.

Sadly, the law doesn’t apply to the Legislature.

That’s right — the public body charged with crafting legislation granted itself immunity from public information requests. The documents that detail lawmakers’ spending remain off the public grid, despite the frequency with which legislators hoist the reform banner.

While all state payments, including those pertaining to the Legislature, were made public because of 2010 transparency legislation that spurred creation of the Massachusetts Open Checkbook website, the system falls short because getting underlying invoices requires requests under public records law. And the Legislature is exempt from such requests.

So where’s the oversight?

The state comptroller’s office isn’t privy to the Legislature’s bills. According to that office, “all payment and supporting documentation resides with the department that makes the payment.” With other departments, the public has a right to the records, sometimes for a processing fee. Agency and department records are subject to state audit.

But the Legislature operates outside the purview of the state auditor. Instead, the Legislature hires its own accounting firm to report on its finances. Internal legislative spending effectively resides under lock and key.

Lawmakers also exempted themselves from open meeting laws. Closed-door operations bar the public from understanding and assessing legislators’ wheelings and dealings, including how they spend their appropriations.

The Legislature’s exemption from both open meeting and public records law marks it as a privileged body that under-serves taxpayers. According to the non-profit organization Sunshine Review, every other New England state legislature is subject to open public records and open meeting laws, making Massachusetts a shameful anomaly.

Why should the Legislature be above laws that apply to other government bodies? If all its spending has a valid business purpose, then why not make underlying invoices public?

If those who represent us at the State House disagree, we who elect them and for whom they supposedly work at least deserve an explanation. Otherwise, we’re only left to speculate about why we’re paying for limousine rides, alterations and legal advice.

Mary Z. Connaughton is director of finance and administration at Pioneer Institute, where Adam Campbell is an intern.