STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 18, 2015…..As a battle slowly unfolds over improved access to state public records, a research group on Wednesday released a report giving Massachusetts an “A” for government spending transparency.
The grade is based on allowing people to search the state budget through an “online checkbook.”
The group, MassPIRG, gave Massachusetts an “F” five years ago. “It is night and day,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the group.
In this year’s report, just one state, Ohio, received an “A+” while three states, Idaho, Alaska and California, received an “F.”
Cummings acknowledged the scope of the grading is narrow and focused on what’s available about state spending. The state increased the number of quasi-public agencies on the budget website, according to the report.
The site, overseen by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, is available at http://www.mass.gov/informedma/.
The start-up cost of the site came to $540,000, as part of a larger information technology upgrade around 2011, according to the report.
The state can improve in providing more information about regional transit authorities, Cummings said. “That’s a shortcoming and we need to improve that.”
Tax credits are another area for improvement, Cummings said. “We want to know more about which industry is getting the money, how much, and did they do what they were supposed to do with that money,” she said. “If they didn’t, do we have a record of collecting that money back, called a clawback?”
Cummings also said “huge room for improvement” exists for access to public records.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who is the state’s chief elections officer as well as its chief public information officer, is eyeing a 2016 ballot initiative for improving the state public records law.
Galvin reiterated his support for a ballot initiative as the best way to strengthen the law, after several newspapers, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Patriot Ledger, coordinated the publishing of editorials to condemn several recent rulings by Galvin.
Galvin previously raised the prospect of a ballot initiative while running for reelection in 2014.
According to Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group, the state’s current public records law is “failing” due to excessive costs for obtaining the records, administrative obstruction and technological barriers.
Common Cause is joining with the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition to back legislation (H 2772) to modernize the state public records law. The law has not seen a substantial update since 1973.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) and Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton).
“We are really out of step with the rest of the country in terms of our public records law,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
Attorney General Maura Healey on Wednesday said she’s committed to reform and would consider proposals to force the Legislature to make its records public. While allowing that there are “absolutely valid exemptions” from public record disclosure, Healey said during an interview on WGBH radio that she’d like to review the blanket exemption for the Legislature and judicial branch.
“Candidly, whenever you see an entire public body exempt from something like a public records law I have concerns. I have questions. So this is something I want to look at,” Healey said.
[Matt Murphy contributed reporting]
Copyright 2015 State House News Service