Update, December 1, 2015, 6:00 p.m.: Due to a correction to the data in another state, Massachusetts’ rank has changed to tied for 11th overall.
Charlie Baker was irritated. Dismayed. Vexed.
The newly elected Massachusetts governor had just finished asking nearly all 49 of his fellow governors a somewhat silly question for a 21st century politician: “Do you have Wi-Fi in your statehouse?”
“Every single one, no matter where they were from, said ‘yes’, Baker recalled, of his hallway polling at February’s National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C. “One said: ‘aren’t you guys down the street from MIT?’”
It was an awkward position for Baker, who grew up in a state regularly ranked in national studies as the smartest in America, and one lauded by CNBC this year as a technology innovation powerhouse. Just weeks before, an eager Baker sat down to govern on his first day in his Statehouse office, only to find there was no… Internet connection?
Back in D.C., Baker struggled to defend Massachusetts as his new colleagues quizzed him about his Internet predicament, asking: “Why would a state as tech-savvy as that not be that tech-savvy?”
Such high-tech failures, in a region engulfed in data and tech talent, drove the Bay State to earn multiple D’s and F’s in a new national scorecard assessing the vigor of state accountability and transparency. Massachusetts earned a 67 — or a D+ — and tied with Iowa for 11th place nationwide in the State Integrity Investigation, conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
Massachusetts’ score dropped from 74 – a C – in 2012, though it ranked 12th among the states in that first go-round. The two scores are not directly comparable due to improvements and updates to the project and its methodology, like eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that occurs only once every 10 years.
Still, some patterns can be gleaned from their differences. The 2015 project included questions throughout asking whether government data is available to citizens in low-cost, open, digital formats.
For Massachusetts, where inflamed colonists led the rebellion against tyrannical British rule, the scores illuminate the gulf separating it from its treasured legacy as that shining “city upon a hill.” From the lush Cape Cod cranberry bogs to the fish piers of Gloucester and west into the luminous Berkshire Mountains, the Massachusetts citizen reveres the state that incubated the nation’s governing structure as one working for the people, not the other way around.
Imagine the reactions of rabble-rousers John Adams, his cousin Sam and neighbor John Hancock, on learning of the slim accountability practiced by the “Great and General Court” – a haughty New England term for a legislature they helped launch. Or that of legendary Massachusetts jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., on hearing of his beloved judiciary’s F rating for accountability.
Lots of Fs and Ds
Massachusetts’ lowest scores came in the public records, judicial accountability and lobbying categories — all F’s. It earned a D- in civil service and executive accountability, four additional Ds for legislative accountability, state budget process, pension transparency and ethics oversight.
Contributing to the low grades is a statute denying easy online access to the statements of financial interests filed annually by legislators, judges, elected officials and high-ranking state employees. Others factors are the lack of a uniform auditing process for disclosures and a loophole that allows influence-seekers to legally bestow gifts on a public employee’s immediate family — unless the giver is a registered lobbyist.
A bright spot in Massachusetts came via the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, earning the state’s only A for the category for campaign financing, and propelling it to 1st in the nation for its data-driven transparency and accountability systems. Massachusetts also earned a respectable B- grade for election oversight.
The F branded on Massachusetts since 2012 for its terrible access to public records hasn’t gone anywhere.
“That F got a lot of notoriety around here,” said former state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, now with the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
But it was not enough to overcome obstacles to change.
The state legislature, judiciary and governor’s office are exempt from the open records law, passed in 1973. There also are dozens of other exemptions in Massachusetts’ laws applying to numerous agencies in the executive branch that permit those entities to withhold records from the public.
Routine records, from agency emails to internal datasets, can take weeks or months to obtain from state agencies, at costs running from a few hundred dollars to the not-unheard-of multi-million-dollar bills sent to some requesters.
Sullivan is optimistic a bill snaking its way through the legislative process could bring needed changes, such as the awarding of attorneys’ fees to stymied requesters and ensuring more electronic access to government documents.
“It’s been a top subject at the statehouse,” Sullivan said. “I’m very hopeful we’ll be getting out of an F grade and moving up.”
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the constitutionally-mandated overseer of transparency in Massachusetts, has declined repeated requests since January to discuss the open records law or the State Integrity scorecard. He oversees three of the 13 categories evaluated in the State Integrity investigation, the most of any single agency head.
Lack of judicial accountability
The lack of accessible, digitized information and an exemption from the state’s public records law helped drive judicial accountability to its failing grade. Court spokeswoman Erika Gully-Santiago declined to comment on the state’s grade, as did Sen. William N. Brownsberger, D-Belmont, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee.
Judges are appointed for life in Massachusetts. Currently, an 82-year-old is among those presiding over appellate cases, having been recalled to the bench from retirement. The public is legally barred from reviewing their performance reviews, expenses and correspondence. The vast majority of state judges aren’t required to issue written findings, a mandate reserved for the roughly two dozen appellate jurists in Massachusetts.
The Judicial Conduct Commission, mandated to investigate errant judges, lacks any enforcement power. It reports directly to the final arbiter for discipline — the judges of the state’s highest court. The majority of Massachusetts’s court records are not online and searchable, despite well over $75 million paid out over the past two decades to corporate behemoths like Deloitte & Touche to create a workable system.
“I think judicial accountably highlights a lot of the challenges facing state government,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Eileen McAnneny. “The fact is, maybe we could do a better job determining what jobs are funded and making sure that in the procurement process, the right vendor is chosen. But the fact that it could go on for almost 19 years also reflects to me a complete lack of oversight.”
Lax lobbying oversight
Lobbyist oversight needs strengthening in Massachusetts, the State Integrity Investigation shows. It remains a raw subject on Beacon Hill four years after former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, was convicted of taking kickbacks from a state contractor.
Hidden from public view are the names of lobbyists and clients who seek advisory opinions from the Secretary of State, whose office oversees lobbyists. And not all those paid to influence legislation in Massachusetts must register as lobbyists, such as those who do “incidental lobbying” — working fewer than 25 hours a week or for under $2,500.