Our Opinion: Open Meeting Law must apply to lawmakers

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Massachusetts, as a cradle of American democracy, prides itself on its good governance. However, when it comes to transparency in government, Massachusetts falls dismally short.

Massachusetts is one of only two states where both the Legislature and the governor are exempt from public records laws, including the Open Meeting Law. Various attempts to correct this over the years have died in committee without a public debate as to the merits of introducing greater transparency to Beacon Hill. In 2016, the Legislature admirably passed measures opening up government agencies to greater scrutiny but lawmakers specifically exempted themselves from rules they chose to apply to others.

In the latest attempt at reform — brought notably by three legislative members of a minority Republican Party that is overwhelmed by majority Democrats — the phrase in the Open Meeting Law declaring that the definition of public body "shall not include the General Court or the committees or recess commissions thereof" would be deleted. As Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency for the Pioneer Institute, pointed out in a March 12 Eagle op-ed piece, lawmakers have claimed that Article XXI of the state Declaration of Rights exempts them from the Open Meeting Law because they cannot be prosecuted for legislative actions. But as Ms. Connaughton explained, a request for public records is hardly tantamount to an automatic lawsuit.

The current debate on Beacon Hill over the latest overdue budget (it was due Monday, the beginning of the fiscal year) has largely been conducted in private, which is the case with many or most committee meetings. The session-opening meetings in which Democratic lawmakers elect legislative leaders are also done in secret. These are important positions, and shouldn't be announced with the equivalent of smoke from a chimney after a closed door gathering as if the lawmakers were cardinals electing a new pope.

We urge lawmakers to give this bid to open up the Legislature a fair hearing. If there are real concerns or objections beyond Article XXI — which is more of an excuse than an explanation — voters would be eager to hear them. Failing that, the clause exempting the Legislature from the Opening Meeting Law should be removed and Beacon Hill should be open to the transparency lawmakers demand of others and that voters should demand of them.

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