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MA Legislature Hit With Failing Grade For Transparency

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Beacon Hill stills has a ways to go when it comes to legislative transparency. A new "Transparency Report Card" issued by the Sunlight Foundation this week gave Massachusetts an 'F' when graded on how well state legislative information is made available to the public through the state's website.

The Commonwealth was one of six states to receive a failing grade, joined by Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska and Rhode Island. Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Texas and Washington all finished at the top of the class, earning 'A' grades for transparency.

Using data collected from its Open States project, the Sunlight Foundation graded states on the six criteria of completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence.

“In the course of writing code to scrape data for all state legislatures, our Open States team and volunteers spent a lot of time looking at state websites and struggled with the often inadequate information made available,” said James Turk, a Sunlight Labs developer. “We hope states will use this report card as a guidepost to improve how they present what their legislature is doing online. Having this data released the right way is important for holding our state governments accountable.”

The Bay State lost points with the Sunlight Foundation in several areas, including completeness due to roll call votes not being published online in a meaningful way. Massachusetts was also marked down in the ease of access category, with the site frequently broken without notice and bill information that is can only be accessed with Javascript. When it comes to machine readability, the Commonwealth's vote data is not available due to being locked up in non-machine readable PDF files. And for one of the oldest states in the union, Massachusetts' data has a very short history, with all information prior to 2009 removed from the state site, costing it points in the permanence department.

Deirdre Cummings, Legislative Director for MassPIRG, said that the Sunlight Foundation's criticism of the state's transparency is fair and accurate, but she noted that there are other concerns about transparency on Beacon Hill that still need to be addressed as well.

"There's no requirement that the votes that are taken in committees are made public," she said. "That's a big concern because many bills never make it out of committee."

The other area where the state has room for improvement, said Cummings, is in giving the public adequate notice ahead of public hearings.

"The notification time is not consistent. Sometimes it's as short as a day or two and sometimes it can be as long as a week or two," she said, noting that a few days seems to be the typical time frame, which is not adequate for members of the public trying to arrange their schedules and do the necessary research ahead of many hearings.

Cummings did, however, note that when it comes to state spending, Massachusetts has significantly improved its transparency in the last five years. Last year, MassPIRG gave the state an 'A-', and the Commonwealth tied for fourth place in the country for its checkbook level detail of state finances that are searchable and downloadable.

"They've made tremendous progress, and they continue to improve and upgrade their website," Cummings said. "We're still pushing to get more information on quasi-public agencies."

Mary Connaughton, Director of Finance and Administration at the Pioneer Institute, said the state has made progress in getting its payments up online, but it could take a positive step further by actually posting the invoices online.

"With respect to state Legislature," she said, "there's a whole lot more that could be done."

Starting with making not just committee votes public, but the meetings themselves through webcasts or some other medium.

Connaughton also pointed out that the Legislature is not subject to state open meeting laws, nor is it subject to the state's public records laws. In addition, the Legislature is not subject to an audit by the state Auditor.

"And all of that casts a very dark cloud over the golden dome of the State House making it impossible for sunlight to shine on it," she said.


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