I wrote this in early July 2021 (and sat on it — post became public June 5, 2022) during a debate over changing the rules of the State House pushed by the advocacy group Act on Mass. Two themes that are most interesting about all this are the relationship between process and substance (implicit claim that a more open State House means more left-wing legislation) and what determines a state’s legislative approval (see CCES plot).
It has become a conventional wisdom that the state legislature in Massachusetts is uniquely deficient in transparency. A recent article in the Boston Globe notes “Massachusetts is the only state where the judicial branch, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim exemptions from public records laws. The state has ranked toward the bottom nationally on measures of openness and transparency.” Citing this article, Rep. Erika Uyterhoven (D-Somerville), a champion of increased transparency and other rules changes on Beacon Hill, tweeted that “Multiple rankings of state legislatures put MA at the bottom depending on criteria.”
But the Globe article did not link to any such rankings demonstrating that Massachusetts scores “towards the bottom.” I’ve certainly heard this claim about Beacon Hill repeated again and again, by the folks at Act on Mass and elsewhere. But is it true? I tried to get a handle on this by examining those systematic rankings of state governments I could find. The short answer is that there are two rankings that place Massachusetts toward the bottom, and three which do not (two middling rankings and one relatively good one). And they all measure transparency very differently.
|Open Legislative Data Report Card||2013||Sunlight Foundation / Open States||Accessibility of Legislative Data on state website||47|
|State Integrity Investigation (Legislative Accountability subscore)||2015||Center for Public Integrity||Disclosure requirements, conflict of interest rules, citizen access and participation in legislative processes||17|
|Following the Money||2016||United States Public Interest Research||Accessibility of state spending on website||9|
|S.W.A.M.P. Index||2018||Coalition for Integrity||Ethics/transparency rules in executive/legislative branches||23|
|Rankings on Financial Transparency||2019||Pioneer Institute||Financial disclosure requirements / disclosure accessibility||47|
Open Legislative Data Report Card (2013) by the now-defunct Sunlight Foundation (the blogpost is titled “Transparency Report Card”). This metric evaluated the accessibility of data on a state’s website, such as whether information on bills and votes could be obtained systematically in machine readable formats.
How did Massachusetts score? Very badly – 47th out of 50th – with the lowest possible scores on “ease of access” and “machine readability.” I suspect that the state website is improved compared to when this evaluation took place. Looking at archived versions of the website from 2013, it was very clunky and hard to navigate. A newer version was released around 2017.
State Integrity Investigation (2015) by Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. “The State Integrity Investigation is a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency done in partnership with Global Integrity.” In addition to an overall ranking, the measure includes scores for several subcategories, such as “Legislative Accountability”, “Executive Accountability”, “Judicial Accountability”, and “Political Financing.” It seems that they had journalists give scores evaluating various statements about the state; some statements regarded the law on paper (“In law, legislators are prohibited from using state resources for personal purposes.”) and others the facts in practice (“In practice, legislators do not use state resources for personal purposes.”).
How did Massachusetts score? Of the 50 states, Massachusetts ranked 17th in the “Legislative Accountability” category with a “D” score of 65. Overall, the state ranked 11/50.
Following the Money 2016 from the United States Public Interest Research Group, a government transparency organization founded by Ralph Nader. This report examines and ranks states by how easy it is to access government spending information online. By this measure of transparency, Massachusetts ranked 9th out of the 50 states, with a score of A.
The S.W.A.M.P. Index 2018. “The States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials (S.W.A.M.P.) Index is a comparative scorecard which rates 50 States and the District of Columbia based on the laws and regulations governing ethics and transparency in the executive and legislative branches.” In practice, this index reflects things like the strength and independence of the state’s ethic oversight agency, if any, and whether and how the law restricts and/or requires disclosure of accepting gifts. The index is constructed by a group called Coalition for Integrity, which previously existed as Transparency International-USA prior to March 2017.
How did Massachusetts score? Of the 50 states plus DC, Massachusetts ranked 23/51 with a score of 56%.
Rankings on Financial Transparency (2019) from the Pioneer Institute. Pioneer Institute released a state-level ranking of financial disclosure requirements for elected officials. According to the report, 3 states have no such requirements; of those states that do, Massachusetts scores the worst according to the group’s analysis of the strength of those requirements and their accessibility to the public (e.g. it says we can’t find those disclosures on any website… seems like a simple and material fix?). Hence, MA scores 47 out of 50 on this measure of transparency. (Unlike the other groups, which are nationwide groups focused on government transparency and corruption, the Pioneer Institute is a pro-business, “free-market” think-tank — Sourcewatch calls it a “right-wing pressure group” — focused on Massachusetts issues).
Act on Mass pushed for three changes to House rules: 1) Speaker term limits 2) Posting of roll-call committee votes 3) A 72 hour period to review bills before floor votes. Speaker term limits and a review period would not have factored in to any of the five transparency metrics I found. Posting roll-calls of all committee votes would, I think, have helped with the Open States measure, but not the Pioneer Institute one.
Some final thoughts on the legislature and the progressive agenda
At least prior to the current activism around the state house rules, which has gained widespread and, I feel, favorable media coverage of the activists charges against the State House (examples here, here, here, here, here, here), public opinion data suggests that Massachusetts voters approve of the state legislature. Polling from MassInc in January 2021 found that 65% of voters approved of the legislature; Steve Koczela of MassINC noted that this was “the highest [legislative approval rate] we have seen in our polling going back over a decade. In the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, Steve notes, state legislature approval was higher in Massachusetts than every other state. Using data from the 2020 CCES (which I plotted below), it seems clear enough that the Massachusetts legislature remains highly regarded (second only to Vermont). Further, compared to other states, relatively few Massachusetts residents – about 14%, putting Massachusetts in 6th – report they are not sure about the legislature. A potential symptom of lack of transparency might be people are unable to form an opinion about the legislature. But, at least compared to other states, that’s not such an issue here (I suspect that much of the variation in both approval and knowledge is explained by demographics, like the proportion of highly educated in a state — but Massachusetts certainly looks better than, say, Rhode Island).
I suspect that the legislature retains its popularity because it tracks public opinion pretty well. And that public opinion is centrist — certainly tax averse, having voted to reduce the gas tax in 2014, the alcohol tax in 2010, and the income tax in 2000, as well as rejecting a progressive income tax no less than five times, albeit a long time ago (1994,1976, 1972, 1968, and 1962) — and also rejecting rank choice voting. In 2018, Republican Charlie Baker won 67% of the votes, and because Democratic votes were highly concentrated in certain parts of the state, Baker won 138 of the 160 state house districts (fully 86% — and won the median house district with 70% of the vote). In 2018, in now-Speaker Ron Mariano’s Third Norfolk district, Baker won with 71% of the vote on the same ballot which elected Mariano: Baker got 11,260 votes to Mariano’s 10,726. So it is perhaps not so surprising that he is cautious.
I am sure that Beacon Hill bears improving. I’m not an expert on the internal functioning of the State House, but I don’t really understand why, for example, the House is so averse to giving members a few more hours to read bills before voting on them. But I doubt the House rules have much to do with why the legislature hasn’t passed more aggressively progressive laws and the legislature doesn’t seem to pay an approval penalty for it either.