Massachusetts lawmakers are promising transparency as they begin work on what could be one of the most difficult state budgets in years. Yet some key decisions on how to spend the state’s money and bridge an estimated $1.5 billion gap could still be made in private, out of earshot of the public and the press.
One reason: The Legislature enjoys an exemption from the state’s open meeting law — the same law to which city councils, boards of selectmen and most other governmental bodies must adhere. It’s an arrangement that makes government watchdog groups uncomfortable, even as they acknowledge improvement in how tax and spending information has been made accessible to the public.
“A whole lot of things that would not fly in town government are perfectly legal and standard practice in the Legislature,” said Pam Wilmot, president of Common Cause Massachusetts.
For example, Wilmot said, Democrats who are an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate can hold caucuses and discuss key legislation behind closed doors — usually with no records kept of the proceedings.
One such private caucus was held last week. Democrats said prior to the meeting that they would be discussing legislation that makes organizational changes in a state agency, but provided no other details. A court officer stood near the door to ensure that only legislators entered.
Common Cause believes the door should be open to all at any legislative meeting in which a quorum — a majority of members in either the House or Senate — is present.
“When there is a quorum of members who are deliberating public policy it should be open to the public, or at least the eyes and ears of the public, which is the press,” Wilmot said.
Some lawmakers agree.
“To be perfectly honest, I have been here 10 years and nothing that has been said in caucus hasn’t also been said in public,” said Rep. Thomas Stanley, a Waltham Democrat who believes the Legislature’s open meeting exemption is unnecessary.
“Having the exemption presents an appearance that does not shed a great light on the Legislature,” said Stanley, who has filed legislation to remove it.
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said all votes taken and committee hearings held by the House are open to the public, but declined to say whether the speaker would support lifting the exemption.
In defending the exemption, lawmakers have said the ability to confer in private, set priorities and have frank exchanges of ideas out of public view is vital to the smooth operation of government.
With certain exceptions, the Massachusetts open meeting law requires a governmental body to open any meeting to the public in which a matter under its jurisdiction is being discussed. The law also requires advance notice of public meetings and that accurate minutes be kept of the meeting and made available to the public.
Meetings can go into closed, or executive, session under several specific conditions that include collective bargaining with unions; interviewing of job applicants; disciplinary proceedings against employees; or discussing sensitive security procedures.
A significant change in the law came last year when enforcement shifted from district attorneys to the state attorney general. But critics complain that the law still lacks teeth, in that it limits fines to $1,000 for violations, and then only those that are deemed intentional.
Massachusetts is one of about 20 states where the Legislature is fully or partially exempt from open meeting requirements.
Robert Ambrogi, president of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said his organization would like to see the Legislature made subject to not only the open meeting law, but the state’s public records law, from which it is also exempt.
“Just as it is useful in an open meeting to see the discussions that lead up to a conclusion, it’s also useful to see the documents that go into that decision,” he said.
Critics have cited other examples of secrecy during the budget process. Amendments offered during debate on the spending plan are often consolidated or eliminated out of earshot of microphones. A House-Senate conference committee appointed to reconcile differences between the budgets passed by both branches routinely conducts most of its critical negotiations in private.
But legislative leaders point to a series of rule changes and budget amendments over the last three years aimed at improving accountability and transparency. They include an online, searchable database of government expenditures and the posting of all bills on the Internet.
Noah Berger, president of Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, an independent research group, said the state has made significant progress in making tax and spending data available to citizens.
“Now when you go to the state budget website, you can fairly easily find spending proposals for each area of the budget, see how spending levels have changed over the past several years, click to descriptions of what the various programs do and what the missions of different parts of government are,” said Berger.
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