Let the Sun Shine in the Statehouse

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Guarding inmates has never been the most glamorous profession. But at least in Suffolk County, Mass. it's a well-paid one. Overtime pay for prison guards in the county has tripled in the last four years, with some guards pulling in as much as $128,000 last year. The big payday might in part have something to with Suffolk's sheriff, Richard Rouse. He's buddies with Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran, one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

But you'd expect that windfall stop this year. After all, Massachusetts is staring at a $1.4 billion budget shortfall this year, which led some reporters at the Boston Globe to be curious whether the state legislature would trim the guard's overtime pay. But when they went looking for some related documents at the House Ways and Means Committee, they were told the committee wouldn't be revealing any of them. Further, they were told, the committee didn't have to, thanks to an 1897 law exempting the legislature from public record disclosure rules. So much for politicians having to be accountable for spending the people's money.

On Boston's Beacon Hill, the legislature has been conducting things behind closed doors for years. The budget has been decided by a handful of powerful leaders. The Ways and Means Committee holds almost all of its meetings in private and doesn't even keep minutes of the proceedings. Neither does the six person conference committee that works out differences between the House and Senate budgets.

Almost every state government in America has had an ugly budget to grapple with this year as the economy slowed and tax revenues shrank. But Massachusetts was the last state to get a budget in place. One reason: The secrecy of all these proceedings, which is supposed to allow legislators to make painful decisions without worrying about politics, slowed down the process. The whole budget was a mess, but most legislators couldn't do anything about it. The closed-door conference handed them the legislation only twelve hours before they had to vote.

The end result: The legislature decided to take $800 million out of the state rainy day fund. They made an additional $650 million cuts, mainly in Medicaid programs, human services, and higher education. They also provided no funding for a clean elections law that voters passed by referendum three years ago. It was left to Acting Governor Jane Swift to undo their handiwork. She vetoed many of the cuts, restoring money to mental health programs and Medicaid priorities that had to be funded under federal law. The Republican ended up looking far more compassionate than the Democrat-dominated legislature. Unfortunately, the vetoes will probably mean more painful decisions down the road as the state continues to run short of cash.

Massachusetts' budget process may be more closed than most, but all state legislatures (not to mention Congress) could use a little more sunlight on their inner workings. Sooner or later, legislative leaders usually have to sit down and make painful compromises to get a budget done. That's what being a leader is about. But each legislator is responsible to his voters, and they need to take a close look at the final budget before they pass it. They should be able to explain every line item to their constituents when they get back home. After all, voters have a right to know the reasons their tax dollars are spent on the hundreds of line items in a budget. And when a budget process is as messy as Massachusetts' has been this past year, voters have a right to know who screwed up. How else are they going to decide whether they need to vote for someone else next Fall?