Stymied first by lawmakers and then the attorney general, state Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s bid to probe the state Legislature took a major step toward seeking permission from a group that has yet to have a say: voters.
A DiZoglio-aligned group said Tuesday that it has collected more than 100,000 signatures, far above the threshold needed to push an initiative closer to the 2024 ballot that would expressly grant the Democrat’s office the power to audit the Legislature.
“Beacon Hill cannot continue its closed-door, opaque operations with so much at stake,” DiZoglio said in a statement released by the ballot question committee.
The drive behind the proposed ballot question has pulled from an unusual coalition of Democratic activists, Republican Party officials, and right-leaning groups and donors, all of whom have regularly criticized the Democratic-led Legislature as one of the most opaque lawmaking bodies in the country.
It’s also proven popular. In a UMass Amherst/WCVB poll released last month, 67 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for a ballot initiative that would “allow the state auditor to assess the performance of the state Legislature.” About 7 percent said they would vote against it.
“It’s one of those rare issues that brings a lot of groups together around a purpose,” said Doug Rubin, a political adviser to DiZoglio and the chair of the ballot question committee.
DiZoglio has invested heavily herself. She donated at least $105,000 to the committee supporting the ballot measure from her campaign account; a portion of that largesse came shortly after DiZoglio loaned her campaign $50,000 of her own money. The committee also sought guidance from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance about whether it could feature DiZoglio in an ad endorsing the question but not identify her as the auditor. (OCPF officials said it could.)
Rubin on Tuesday estimated that the committee has raised about $250,000 so far. That figure includes tens of thousands of dollars from major GOP donors Rick Green and car magnate Ernie Boch Jr., as well as smaller donations from local Democratic activists in Chatham, Harwich, and North Andover, among other places.
Bret Bero, a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, also donated, according to the group, which doesn’t have to file a report with state campaign finance regulators disclosing all its donors until January.
Legislators have already sought to undercut DiZoglio’s effort. The state Senate’s counsel sent a three-page letter to Attorney General Andrea J. Campbell asking her to reject DiZoglio’s petition to put the question on the ballot. The Senate’s attorney argued that the petition shouldn’t have been filed as a proposal for a new state law, but rather a proposed constitutional amendment — which requires a longer process, including getting approval from lawmakers in consecutive legislative sessions.
Campbell ultimately approved the initiative’s language, a basic step for any question seeking to make the ballot.
Campbell, however, dealt DiZoglio her own blow this month, telling her in a letter that the auditor’s office neither has the authority to unilaterally probe the legislative branch, nor can it sue lawmakers in an attempt to force their hand.
The state’s top prosecutor also raised the potential that the effort to gain the power to audit the Legislature could run into its own “constitutional limitations” should the initiative make it to the ballot and be approved by voters next November.
“I believe transparency is a cornerstone of good government,” Campbell said at the time, “but that transparency must be achieved through methods that are consistent with the law.”
DiZoglio, a former lawmaker, said in March that she intended to audit the Legislature and its “closed-door operation,” pursuing a promise she campaigned on. She described conducting a broad review, saying that the audit could include a review of not only hiring and spending within the chambers, but how they appoint committees, the adoption or suspension of their rules, and their policies and procedures.
Legislative leaders, however, have resisted, arguing that an audit of the chambers is both unconstitutional and, as House Speaker Ron Mariano said, “wholly unnecessary.” Senate President Karen E. Spilka also argued that “as the separation of powers clause dictates,” her chamber is empowered to manage its own business and set its own rules.
Campbell’s legal decision only placed a greater emphasis on DiZoglio’s effort to push a question to the ballot.
“It’s one battle that has been lost,” DiZoglio said earlier this month, “but not the war.”
Any group seeking to put a question on next year’s ballot needed to gather 74,574 signatures and file them, first with local officials by Wednesday and then with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6.
If election officials certify enough of the signatures the ballot question group submitted, the proposal would then head to the Legislature in January 2024, where lawmakers can approve it, propose a substitute, or decide not to act. If lawmakers don’t take action by May 1, the campaign must collect another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19 — then the secretary of state’s office by July 3 — to officially make the ballot.
Other campaigns have also claimed they gathered enough signatures to push their questions toward next year’s ballot. They include a petition that would no longer make high school diplomas contingent on students passing MCAS exams, and another that would apply the state’s minimum wage of $15 to tens of thousands of tipped service workers.