State House Secrets

This article is more than 8 years old.
Massachusetts lawmakers say they believe in transparency in government – for every government body, apparently, except their own. (Photo: snowriderguy/flickr)
Massachusetts lawmakers say they believe in transparency in government – for every government body, apparently, except their own. (Photo: snowriderguy/flickr)

Would you play cards if the dealer turned his back as he shuffled the deck? When my son tried that move, he got his first lesson in the value of transparency. So you would think that with the really big stuff, like how we are governed, there would be zero tolerance for the hidden shuffle.

Not so with the Massachusetts state Legislature.

No one phrased it better than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1913 when he wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Politicians have echoed this maxim for close to a century now. They promote it on the campaign trail, but it is often a different story when they are in office.

A transparent legislative process is vital to a representative democracy, which depends on an educated, informed electorate that trusts its chosen representatives.

So why do legislators regularly bar the media from State House meetings? After all, even volunteer committee members in the smallest town governments keep their meetings open for fear of violating the Commonwealth’s open meeting law.

The language that State House lawmakers use to exempt themselves from that law is a blatant example of a “do as we enact, not as we act” philosophy. The law requires conveners to post meeting notices and provide public access to all board and commission meetings. But ironically and conveniently there is a loophole: The law’s definition of “public bodies” specifically excludes the Legislature, formally known as the General Court, and its committees.

How can voters make fully informed electoral choices without a complete picture of their representatives’ actions?

Another example of the General Court’s veil of secrecy is the control it has over its own audit. According to Massachusetts General Laws, “the state auditor shall make an audit… of the accounts, programs, activities, and functions… of all departments, offices, commissions, institutions, and activities of the commonwealth.” Basically all state agencies are subject to audit, but there is no mention of the Legislature’s accounts and functions. They get a pass.

To create a modicum of credibility, the General Court hires its own accountant to conduct an audit, but it limits the scope to its statement of resources and expenditures. Examining the difference between appropriations and expenditures is a far cry from conducting a full state audit.

Without a complete audit, the public has no assurance that solid internal controls are in place, that transactions with vendors are at arm’s length, or that all expenditures are for a valid governmental purpose. House and Senate Republicans routinely file bills to subject the Legislature to the audit requirement. But when the Legislature is so overwhelmingly controlled by one party, legislation championed by the minority seldom sees the light of day.

Finally, state law requires that all public documents be made available to the public at an individual’s request within 10 days. The law, which is the source of much of what we learn through the media about state and local government, defines records as “any written or printed book or paper, or any photograph, microphotograph, map or plan.” Yet the law also states that “this chapter shall not apply to the records of the General Court.”

In a government of, by and for the people, transparency should not be merely an aspiration. If we can’t watch the deck being shuffled, we should hire a new set of dealers.

This program aired on August 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.