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In Legislature and governor's office, questions of transparency linger in Massachusetts

Mass. Governor Maura Healey speaking to the Massachusetts Municipal Association in January 2023.
State House News Service
Mass. Governor Maura Healey speaking to the Massachusetts Municipal Association in January 2023.

Disagreement over transparency in the Legislature and governor's office continues in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts House and Senate have each been working on rules to govern legislators and lawmaking for the two-year session that began about a month ago. The procedural task happens every two years, but some long-term differences in transparency seem to be coming up again between what senators and what representatives want.

State House News Service reporter Chris Lisinski explains the current movement on the issue of transparency.

Chris Lisinski, State House News Service: The persistent sticking point that we're seeing once again is how much information the public should get, by default, about lawmaking business that happens in all of the steps leading up to when a bill gets to the House or Senate floor.

The Senate has been pushing for years now to open up more insight into the committee process, in particular, where bills go for review, and show people how lawmakers vote in committee polls that really decide if a bill is going to go forward in the process and make it to the floor, or if it's going to die a quiet death without ever seeing the light of day and getting a full public vote. Senators are going to push in their rules package, which they're set to debate again to make those committee vote results public.

The House is not on board with that. The House offer instead is naming the representatives who dissent from the recommendation of leadership and then lumping everyone else together into an anonymous aggregate total.

We're also seeing access to written testimony as another difference between the two branches. And, as we move out of the COVID era, the House and Senate are already at odds on whether they should continue to allow lawmakers to vote remotely.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: And of course, Gov. Maura Healey herself campaigned around the issue of transparency. She previously said her office would follow the state's public records law when people request documents, but she's now backtracked on that a bit, giving herself an extra loophole that doesn't exist in the law. What happened here?

Yeah, this is a bit odd. Gov. Healey is now being, I would say, a little bit murky about what her office will do when it comes to public records requests.

Massachusetts is notoriously non-transparent when it comes to public records and the governor's office and Legislature. We're one of only a few states in the country where the governor's office and legislature are not subject to public records law. Healey said, I believe while she was governor-elect (had not yet taken the oath of office), said she wouldn't claim the exemption from the public records law would open up her office to that.

And then this week she said, Well, it'll really be more of a case by case basis. We're not going to claim exemptions as a blanket policy. You know, there will be some instances when the governor's office won't release records because of personnel issues or negotiations, things like that.

So, it's not a full reversal from her position, but it is certainly a step backwards, as she seems now to be carving out some space when her pledge to open up public records, access will not actually apply.

A coalition of leading business groups last week rolled out recommendations for lawmakers and the administration to overhaul the state's tax code. They say significant changes need to be made to keep the state economically competitive amid workforce shortages and rising prices. Healey described tax relief as a top priority while she was on the campaign trail, but she still hasn't laid out any specific plans. So what's the business community looking for and what's Healey likely to get behind?

The business community at this point is looking for some pretty substantial reforms that in some cases go even beyond what Gov. Charlie Baker proposed last year and what lawmakers seemed interested in before they backtracked from their plans.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Society of CPAs have called for quintupling the estate tax threshold. So instead of the estate tax kicking in at $1 million, it would kick in at $5 million and then increase annually based on inflation. They want the capital gains tax rate to be slashed from 12% to 5%.

These are all pretty significant ideas that generally don't have that much traction among Democrats. Healey last year did call Baker's proposals generally pretty good ideas. She gave some vocal support to that. I would say it's not seeming all too likely that these ideas business groups are floating are going to find a warm audience among the governor or lawmakers.

And briefly, Amy Carnevale, new state GOP committee chair, defeated Jim Lyons, who was often at odds with former Gov. Charlie Baker. Any indications Carnevale will bring unity to the party?

She certainly wants to set out to professionalize the party and bring together State Committee members on the same page. Politically, pretty significantly conservative, but she's running on a platform of more party unity. So we will certainly see a shift in tone, I think.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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