Despite transparency push, budget talks likely to be private
May. 28, 2016
BOSTON (AP) — When a handful of Massachusetts lawmakers convene in the coming weeks to negotiate a final version of the $39.5 billion state budget, they will most likely follow tradition by doing so behind closed doors — notwithstanding the newfound pledges of transparency echoing around Beacon Hill.
Just this past week, the Legislature approved an overhaul of the state's decades-old public records law. The bill promises to make it easier, quicker and less expensive for citizens to gain access to government documents, while offering a reasonable recourse through the courts when public records requests are unfairly denied.
The final legislation was drafted by a conference committee consisting of three members each from the House and Senate. The committee opened its meetings to the public and press and even solicited input from interested parties such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Conference committees — routinely appointed by legislative leadership to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of bills — generally choose to deliberate in secret. This breaks no law. The Legislature, unlike virtually every other government entity in Massachusetts, is exempt from the open meeting law which otherwise requires the people's business to be conducted in public view.
The decision to keep the public records conference committee open led to dialogue that "created a better bill," said Rep. Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat who was the lead House negotiator. Lawmakers also conceded that going behind closed doors to discuss legislation promoting greater transparency would have been, if nothing else, bad optics.
The decision could well spur future conference committees to pursue open door policies as well. Barring a major shift in attitude, however, negotiations over the state budget, the most important and far-reaching piece of annual legislation, will remain private.
"I think the public records conference committee is a very good exercise and it's totally consistent with what we are talking about," Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said during a meeting earlier this month with reporters. "But it's a very different exercise than trying to negotiate a budget in public."
While he favors most efforts to boost transparency — potentially including more public conference committees — the Amherst Democrat cited the sheer complexity of the budget and the need to have a final spending plan in place by July 1.
"You're talking about thousands of line items and outside sections and a significant number of differences between the House and Senate," Rosenberg said.
Earlier in his career, while working on the staff of then-state Sen. John Olver, Rosenberg said he witnessed attempts to hold public conference committees on the budget and described them as "theater." Most of the decisions, he said, were still made privately; the panel would then convene in public where they "pretended" to debate.
"If we end up with conference committees with people posturing day after day, week after week, and sort of playing to the camera and playing to the cheap seats, then we are not going to get a budget done," he said.
The Senate leader also noted that the budget process affords plenty of public input. Public hearings are held around the state; the House and Senate then debate and vote on their respective versions of the spending plan in open sessions that are televised and live-streamed on the Internet.
The final version drafted by the conference committee must also be approved by both chambers in open session, though by rule the bill can no longer be amended and rejection of a conference committee report is about as rare as a May snowstorm in Massachusetts.