Six months into their legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers have yet to agree on transparency protocols for their own work, adding to growing frustration among advocates who say Beacon Hill uses secrecy to shut constituents out of the legislative process.
It’s yet another sign that state leaders who pride themselves on topping national rankings on many issues have little appetite to lead the nation on open government, critics said.
The delay “is not a good sign, but it comes as no surprise,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
“Creating more transparency within the Legislature continues to be an uphill battle,” Silverman said. “The public is in the unfortunate position of convincing its legislators to open themselves up to more scrutiny and oversight, and for obvious reasons, that can be a difficult sell.”
Advocates have long criticized Beacon Hill for its opaque procedures, complaining that without knowing who opposed bills or why they were never put to a formal vote, it’s difficult to know how to advocate for policy priorities, and impossible for constituents to hold their representatives accountable.
Massachusetts is the only state where the judicial branch, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim exemptions from public records laws. The state has ranked toward the bottom nationally on measures of openness and transparency.
Advocates hoped there might be room for progress this year after a 2020 ballot question in 16 house districts found overwhelming support for increasing transparency. But so far, the status quo has prevailed.
Every term, the Democratic-dominated chambers must agree on a set of internal procedures that govern the legislative process — a discussion that this year included a push to share more information with the public about who supported which pieces of legislation at each stage in the process, with the goal of shedding some light on why some popular measures never make it into law.
The Senate favored a more transparent approach, while the House wanted to mostly maintain a status quo that makes it difficult for outsiders to track the process. On March 22, three lawmakers from each chamber were assigned to negotiate the rules. But months later, there is no resolution. None of the six members of the conference committee responded to questions from The Boston Globe about their work.
The lawmakers held one public hearing, on March 29; after about one minute, they opted to keep their discussions behind closed doors, outside the view of advocates and reporters. One of the lawmakers negotiating the rules, state Representative Claire Cronin — the Easton Democrat and House majority leader who President Biden tapped to be ambassador to Ireland — said at the time she looked forward “to doing all that we can to reach an agreement and do it as promptly as possible.”
The committee has had no public meetings since.
Ella McDonald, a communications director for the advocacy group Act on Mass, which pushed the ballot question on transparency, lamented that the rules are being negotiated in a “black box.”
“We don’t know if they’ve been meeting, who is in those meetings, who they’re consulting, what they’re hashing out, when it’ll be available,” she said. “It’s deeply concerning that it’s been so long. And the fact that these transparency rules are being decided behind closed doors is definitely ironic.”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka did not respond to Globe inquiries about the pace of the committee’s progress.
Advocates wanted lawmakers to publish the way they vote on bills when they are heard in legislative committees, publish the testimony that influenced their votes, and provide more notice ahead of scheduled committee hearings. House lawmakers who opposed those steps said during a debate earlier this year that they might create too much work for staff or mislead constituents who, they suggested, did not have a firm grasp of the legislative process.
A House committee on internal rules issued a report last week recommending that the chamber maintain some pandemic protocols, including livestreaming meetings of the Legislature and allowing remote access to hearings on bills.
But on other questions of transparency, it suggested minimal increases to public access. The report recommended publishing only the names of the lawmakers who vote against bills during the committee process, not those who vote for them or abstain.
“This balanced approach allows for the development and redrafting of bills as they go through the committee process,” the report added, given that “support or opposition can and should change as the legislation is refined.”
Its authors, Democratic Representatives Sarah Peake of Provincetown and William Galvin of Canton, did not respond to requests for comment. Mariano said the study would help the House incorporate the lessons of the pandemic to improve the legislative process.