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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Legislature, governor's office must take this real opportunity to upgrade Bay State's woeful governmental transparency

In the 2021-22 legislative session, lawmakers could not get their act together on establishing a rules package. That failure at such a fundamental task meant the entire session operated under emergency rules adopted on a temporary basis, which not only contributed to last session’s harried end but puts the spotlight on the ongoing debate over the rules package to govern the recently opened 2023-24 session.

It should be unacceptable that the Legislature limped through an entire two-year session on emergency rules, and it would be sillier still to do so again. As state House and Senate leaders debate a rules package, it’s also a good time to re-center the conversation on Massachusetts’ woeful standards of state secrecy.

While there’s never a bad time to center the importance of governmental transparency, the rules package debate offers the opportunity for simple changes in legislative procedure that would have profound impact on the openness of our democracy. And when it comes to openness of our commonwealth’s democratic institutions, Massachusetts’ legacy as the cradle of American democracy is betrayed by its state secrecy. Ours is the only state in the union where all three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — all claim blanket exemption to public records law. When it comes to those most basic standards of transparency, our local planning boards and city councils must abide while those who craft law and enforce policy for the entire state do not.

In fact, Massachusetts voters aren’t even entitled to know how the representatives they send to Beacon Hill vote in committee, a crucial stage of the legislative process that either forwards bills to a full chamber vote or relegates them to a quiet death in study.

That stifling secrecy should not stand, and voters across Massachusetts agree. During last year’s state elections, ballots in 20 legislative districts included a nonbinding referendum asking voters if their representative should be instructed to vote for House rules that would make all legislators’ committee votes publicly available. The question passed overwhelmingly in all 20 districts, up from 16 districts approving a similar nonbinding question in 2020. The 20 districts that approved the question last year include the 2nd Berkshire District, represented by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

For Rep. Farley-Bouvier, the entire Berkshire delegation and all lawmakers who wish to serve the citizens of Massachusetts with integrity, those voters’ voices underscore a simple question: Do your constituents deserve to know how you vote while representing them?

Some lawmakers argue that committee votes and some legislative testimony must be kept secret for the benefit of lawmakers engaged in the nitty-gritty of writing and negotiating legislation. But the voters hire the lawmakers, not the other way around. In a government by and for the people, the people deserve to see how the sausage is made when it’s made on their behalf.

Changing the rules of the Legislature to upgrade the Statehouse’s transparency is just one small but obvious way to put a dent in Massachusetts’ shameful standard of state secrecy. And the Legislature is not the only branch of state government where such opacity needlessly obfuscates the gears of government. The executive and judicial branches have also claimed blanket exemption to public records law by pointing to the 1997 Supreme Judicial Court case Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, whose duties include overseeing the state’s Public Records Division, has long maintained that governors and lawmakers alike have “terribly abused” the ruling over the last quarter-century to shroud their activity from the public they serve. We have applauded Secretary Galvin’s concrete efforts to pierce this shroud of secrecy, including through legislation he filed that would make public records law applicable to the state’s most powerful leaders.

We were cautiously optimistic that Secretary Galvin might have an ally in those efforts in Gov. Maura Healey. On the trail, she committed to waiving the public records exemption precedent her predecessors have leaned on, and we praised her for going further shortly after her election when she told Boston Public Radio she would support legislation to limit public records exemptions for not just the governor’s office but the Legislature and judiciary as well.

It remains to be seen, however, how Gov. Healey will follow through on those pledges made by candidate Healey. A coalition of transparency advocates last month wrote to Gov. Healey asking her to follow up her promising words with meaningful action. We join in those calls from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England Newspaper & Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition. Now that the Healey administration has had nearly a month to settle in, we’d like to see some of those real steps, such declaring her office will simply abide by public records law while waiving whatever exceptions Lambert might allow and filing legislation to make all three branches more responsive to records law and public access requests.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it as long as necessary: Massachusetts has a transparency problem, and Bay Staters deserve better than bearing the dubious distinction of living in the most secretive state in the union. Between Gov. Healey’s verbal commitments to more transparency and the ongoing rules debate in the Legislature, there is now real momentum to do something about it. We call on the Berkshire delegation and the Healey administration to get going on these long overdue transparency upgrades.

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