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EDITORIAL

What Florida could teach Massachusetts

Our state’s ethics laws on financial disclosure are badly out of date and intimidating to access. The Sunshine State does much better.

Globe staff illustration

Curious about the net worth of Florida’s governor — the one who’s now running for president? Well, about three clicks of the mouse and there it is on his state’s financial disclosure website.

Ronald Dion (who knew?) DeSantis in his latest state ethics filing lists his net worth at the end of last year as $1,174,331.07. Yes, down to the penny. Along with an $18,628.66 loan and a $1.2 million advance from HarperCollins for his book “The Courage to be Free.”

Want to look up similar information about Governor Maura Healey? Well, first the curious will have to register online with the State Ethics Commission, disclose any affiliation (say, a newspaper or civic group), provide an email address and a telephone number, and, oh yes, upload a photo ID — driver’s license or passport will do nicely.

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Then, as the commission states on its website, “the law further requires the Commission to notify the filer of the name and affiliation” of the person viewing the public official’s statement of financial interest.

“It’s basically a legal form of intimidation,” said Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency for the Pioneer Institute. “It really isn’t good government. It should be easy [to view the forms] but people don’t do it because it’s hard.”

In fact, according to the Ethics Commission, only 28 people have registered so far this year and they have accessed 548 filings.

It’s not just that it’s hard to access, but because the form hasn’t been updated since 1978 when the law was passed — it requires financial disclosure for what is now some 4,000 elected officials and high-ranking public officials and policy makers — much of the “disclosure” is virtually worthless.

Unlike the Florida law with its down-to-the-penny requirements, Massachusetts has a series of brackets in every category — income, investments, mortgages, real estate holdings. Those brackets, say, for assessed value of real estate, start at a now utterly silly “$1,001 to $5,000” and go to the top bracket — still listed as “$100,001 or more.” The median sale price of a single-family home in Massachusetts in July was $610,000, according to The Warren Group. So all the form does now is distinguish homeowners from non-homeowners.

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“It’s totally out of touch with the times,” Connaughton said.

Sure, Massachusetts was something of a trailblazer back in 1978 when the law was first implemented — and political officials were required to list sources of income not just for themselves but for spouses and children living in the household. Nepotism became easier to track down, along with conflicts of interest.

But times change, and when it comes to bringing sunshine to public records, Massachusetts has sadly fallen behind the curve. It wasn’t until 2017 that Massachusetts put its files online. Prior to that, anyone requesting to see a statement of financial interest had to appear in person at the offices of the State Ethics Commission.

A report Connaughton coauthored in 2019 found Massachusetts to be the only state that requires a photo ID to view files and one of only two that require registration. Maryland, the other state to do so, requires only an email address to set up an account and makes available disclosure forms from all 14,000 officials and employees on the state payroll.

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Idaho remains the only state in the nation that requires no personal financial disclosure from its lawmakers and other high-ranking public officials after Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment last fall requiring disclosure by elected officials. It will be up to the Legislature there to actually draft a law and implement the system.

As we know well here in Massachusetts, the devil indeed is in the details — or lack thereof — and in accessibility. It’s one thing to insist such information is a matter of public record and quite another to make those records readily accessible.

And despite the fact that the Massachusetts form is an exhausting 42 pages long, in the end it offers less information, for example, than the far shorter model used in Florida. The form filed by that state’s House Speaker Paul Renner, a mere 12 pages long, not only lists his primary residence ($1,188,199), a condo ($184,000), and a rental property ($133,154.00) but also includes attachments detailing all the investments in his 401(k)s.

But this isn’t about political voyeurism (or looking for stock tips); it’s about seeing the potential for conflicts of interest, for double dealing, for mortgages or loans that are too favorable for the powerful. It’s for private citizens and media alike to be able to get a handle on corruption if it exists.

One not so small improvement — dropping the photo ID requirement — is fixable by the Ethics Commission itself. The law only requires that those viewing a file “provide identification acceptable to the commission.” Even voting doesn’t require a photo ID.

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But updating those now fairly pointless brackets — a suggestion made in 2017 by Common Cause Massachusetts, which recommended adding categories up to $5 million — would require a change in the law itself. So would updating the cumbersome and intimidating registration and notification requirements.

“I don’t know that there’s much of an appetite to change the system,” said David Giannotti, chief of the Ethics Commission’s Public Education and Communications Division.

Certainly not among lawmakers who have happily exempted themselves from most of the state’s public records laws. And that leaves the approach that worked for Michigan voters — the ballot box.

The current Massachusetts law on financial disclosure gives the illusion of transparency without the reality. Civic groups devoted to good government and the voting public should demand the real deal.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.