Massachusetts’ state government has long been one of the least transparent in the country.
Want to know how your representative voted in committee on a crucial climate change or police reform bill? Good luck with that. There’s no requirement the information be made public.
Curious about who testified before the committee before it took its top-secret vote? You’re going to have trouble with that one too.
And many of the documents that are readily accessible to the public in other states — e-mails, contracts, and memos at the heart of the people’s business — are off-limits here. Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country where the governor’s office, the legislature, and the judiciary all claim they are exempt from public records law.
Open-government advocates have been calling on these institutions to change their ways for years. The rationale is clear: Knowing how elected officials’ deliberate, oversee critical services, and vote allows the public to hold them accountable for their actions. But the state government has hardly budged. The latest affront? Just a couple of months ago, House lawmakers rejected a measure that would have taken the modest step of making committee votes public and publicizing testimony.
It may be time, then, to up the ante to press for a constitutional amendment, via ballot measure, that would smash through the obfuscation strengthening Massachusetts’ weak public records law and making it applicable across state government.
There’s precedent for this sort of effort. Washington state voters approved public records reform in 1972. And a group called Progress Michigan announced a ballot measure push just last month.
The promise of greater transparency is reason enough to pursue a constitutional amendment; we should all know what our government is up to.
But the amendment could have a wider effect than that — encouraging the Legislature to pass important legislation that too often withers in darkness.
Every year, bills with wide support — some claiming dozens and dozens of cosponsors — die in committee, with no record of who killed them and no way to hold those legislators accountable.
Getting a constitutional amendment approved would be no small task. Open-government advocates would have to commit substantial resources to collecting the tens of thousands of required signatures. And then, at least one-quarter of the Legislature would have to approve of the measure in two consecutive sessions before it could go on the ballot.
Given lawmakers’ longstanding resistance to transparency, even that low threshold could be tough to meet. But a high-profile push for a constitutional amendment would put new pressure on Beacon Hill to act.
It could also activate support among a public typically more concerned about education and health care than public records reform.
Recent history suggests voters will back open government when given the choice. Last year, voters in 16 House districts overwhelmingly approved nonbinding ballot measures calling on their representatives to make the committee process more transparent.
Anyone who’s paid attention to state and national affairs in recent decades knows the rules of the game really matter — the Electoral College, campaign finance, transparency. Some of the rules are hard to change.
These are rules we can alter — and should.
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