State lawmakers are currently debating a $41 million budget for next year that will set the agenda for dealing with a myriad of challenges facing the state -- improving education, adding affordable housing and battling the opioid epidemic chief among them.
Along with statewide issues, legislators will be trying to shoehorn their prized local projects into the spending plan, through 1,400 amendments that would add more than $3 billion to the bottom line. Which of those amendments survive, and which are pocketed for another day, is the subject of frenzied horse trading between Gov. Charlie Baker, the Legislature's 200 representatives and senators, and the myriad special interest lobbyists who prowl the corridors of the Statehouse.
The only people not invited to the party? You, the taxpayers.
That's because Massachusetts remains the only state in the nation where the Legislature, the governor's office and the judiciary are exempt from the public records law. And it's because legislators hold their budget negotiations in secret, and without taking notes.
Sure, lawmakers will make a pretense of "debating" the budget on the House and Senate floor later this spring or summer, but don't be fooled. That display is for show only, more vaudeville than discourse. The real work is done behind closed doors, where you're not welcome.
A few years ago, there was hope, however brief, that the situation would change when the state's public records law was overhauled. To their credit, lawmakers made it easier for citizens to gain access to information about the workings of their city and town governments. To their great shame, however, they continued to exempt themselves, the governor's office and the courts from the same rules.
The Pioneer Institute, a Beacon Hill think thank, argues that they’re violating the state Constitution.
"The legislative exemptions … extend the power of the General Court beyond the limits of its constitutional authority and undermines the rights reserved by the people," Mary Connaughton, the Pioneer Institute's director of government transparency, wrote in a letter to legislators early this month. "Accountability cannot be a reality if the Legislature exercises its authority behind closed doors with its books and records shielded from public oversight."
The Legislature can't be counted on to police itself, and really has no interest in doing so. In 2016, lawmakers created a "commission" to study whether the special exemptions should be lifted. It should come as no surprise that the group has met only twice over the past year, and slipped an amendment into a supplemental spending bill that gave them an extra year to report their findings back to taxpayers.
Clearly, there is little interest in reform among elected officials.
"The very people who are in charge of making those recommendations are the ones who would be most affected by the reforms," said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. "You're essentially asking legislators on their own to agree to be more transparent and share more information. That's a hard sell."
Lawmakers argue the secrecy allows for government to run more smoothly. More smoothly for whom? Three of the last four House speakers have been indicted on federal charges. The previous Senate president, Stan Rosenberg, stepped down from his post and is being investigated by his colleagues after his husband was indicted on charges of sexual assault, criminal lewdness and distributing nude photographs without consent. Rosenberg's now-estranged husband, Bryon Hefner, also reportedly bragged he could influence Senate business. Meanwhile, a former senator, Brian Joyce, is facing counts of corruption and racketeering, after prosecutors said he laundered $1 million in bribes and kickbacks through his Canton law office.
This is what happens when accountability becomes a closed loop, where lawmakers are answerable only to themselves, and not those they represent. It is long past time they hold themselves to the same standards of openness and transparency as their counterparts in local government -- and across the rest of the country.