In Massachusetts, Once A Leader In Government Transparency, Key Votes Are Hidden From The Public

The Washington Post published an article on January 9 critical of the Iowa Senate for a new policy that requires reporters to now observe senate proceedings from a viewing gallery, as is customary in most other state legislatures. Journalists had previously been permitted on the floor of the Iowa Senate, something unique to the Hawkeye State. Yet, while the Washington Post deems this rule change in Iowa worthy of national coverage, the paper hasn’t published anything on what is arguably the least transparent state legislative body in country: the Massachusetts statehouse. 

In 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence was written, the Massachusetts House of Representatives constructed a viewing gallery, the first to do so among the thirteen colonial legislatures, for the public to witness debates and legislative proceedings. In his latest book, “Power & Liberty,” historian Gordon Wood described the creation of a public gallery in the Massachusetts statehouse as “an important step in the democratization of American political culture.” 

Yet, whereas Massachusetts had been a historical leader in transparency in government even prior to the nation’s founding, today the commonwealth is arguably the least transparent state government in the entire United States. Two and a half centuries after being the first legislative body to allow the public to view debates and proceedings, today the Massachusetts Legislature is the only one in the continental U.S. to have been closed to the public for the entire duration of the pandemic (the Hawaii Legislature is also closed to the public). Not far from the site of the Boston tea party, today Bay State legislators raise taxes behind closed doors, without so much as a recorded vote. 

“There is no legislative body in America as opaque as the Massachusetts Legislature,” says Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a non-partisan taxpayer organization. “They have gotten away with passing billion dollar budgets without a vote, passing new taxes without a vote, making some of their votes not available to the public.” 

In addition to making laws and raising taxes in secret, Massachusetts legislators have also refused to enacted voter-approved citizen petitions. The abuse of authority and concealing of the democratic process doesn’t stop there. 

“Massachusetts legislators exempt themselves from the state’s public records and open meeting laws and set their salaries to rise at the rate of inflation, which resulted in some part time lawmakers earning over $220,000 last year,” adds Craney. “Until a strong minority party in the legislature offers a contrast, and the public holds these elected officials accountable, this type of opaque behavior will continue to be tolerated.”

In 2009, Massachusetts legislators amended the state open meetings law in order to centralize enforcement under the state attorney general. Robert Ambrogi, then executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said that he wasn’t even aware of the change until after it had passed. There had been no public debate on the matter, just as there is no public debate on many important matters in the Massachusetts statehouse. 

“A lot of the work of the Legislature takes place in committee meetings and conference committees and all of that happens outside the public eye,” Ambrogi added. “You want to be able to see the deliberation and the thought process.”

One of the senior members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), assistant speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, appeared NPR’s On Point on January 7 to bemoan alleged threats to democracy and make the case for a federal takeover of state-run elections systems that would outlaw state voter ID laws and overturn state bans on ballot harvesting. When asked if she has concerns about the opaque manner in which the democratic process and legislative business is conducted in her own state, Rep. Clark declined to comment. 

Massachusetts legislators haven even gone so far as to refuse to implement ballot measures that have been approved by voters. In 2000, for example, Massachusetts residents voted in favor of Question 4, a ballot measure that rolled back the state income tax rate from 5.95% to 5.0%. Yet state lawmakers decided to delay implementation of that tax rollback, despite the fact that 56% of Massachusetts cast ballots in favor. 

“Instead, Beacon Hill dropped the tax rate to 5.3% and passed a law conceding the rest — but only in small doses, and only if the state met certain financial targets,” explained Governing Magazine. “The first of those steps didn’t come for another decade.” 

It was only on January 1, 2020, more than two decades after the rollback to 5% was approved by voters, that the state’s income tax rate was finally reduced to 5.0%. In announcing the completion of the rollback, Governor Charlie Baker (R) said “we are finally making happen what voters called for almost 20 years ago.”

Though the income tax cut approved by Massachusetts voters was finally implemented by lawmakers, albeit 20 years later, it’s not lost on many Massachusetts residents that state lawmakers refused to carry out the will of voters so that they could tax more of their income. “And to think about the billions of dollars that the state government has siphoned from taxpayers’ wallets during all those years,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, the organization that led the campaign in favor of Question 4 back in 2000. “It’s disgraceful.”

The Washington Post reported that the decision in the Iowa Senate to move journalists to a viewing gallery “raised concerns among free press and freedom of information advocates who said it is a blow to transparency and open government that makes it harder for the public to understand, let alone scrutinize, elected officials.” Yet, unlike in the Massachusetts Legislature, the public is at least allowed into the Iowa Legislature and can view state legislative business in person. If the Washington Post and other national outlets are looking for a statehouse that is lacking in government transparency, they would do well to turn their attention to the golden dome on Boston’s Beacon Hill.