In 2016, when the MA Legislature updated the state's public records law, they decided to punt on the issue of how such laws should apply to themselves. Indeed, Massachusetts is the only state where the courts, Legislature, and Governor's Office all claim to be fully exempt from public records laws.
In traditional Beacon Hill fashion, the Legislature created a commission to study whether or not they should be subject to public records laws---or, at the very least, how they can be more open in their practice. The bicameral commission rarely met and ended up with no actual recommendations.
But that's not the fault of the senators in the commission. Frustrated with their House colleagues, the six Senate members issued their own report on December 31, 2018.
And they followed through with it. In the Joint Rules package the Senate passed two years ago and again last week, the Senate approved key transparency measures like
- Publishing committee votes online, something most other state legislatures already do. Your legislators represent you, and you should be able to know whether or not they are voting in line with your values. And so should their colleagues who aren't on the committee!
- Making testimony submitted to committees available to the public, with appropriate exceptions for sensitive information that could jeopardize the health, wellness, or safety, of an individual. States like Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, and Oregon go further than the proposal to simply make testimony available upon request: they publish it by default--something that the MA House showed it was able to do last summer with testimony submitted on the police reform bill. Seeing testimony enables both advocates and legislators to know who is fighting for a bill along with them -- and whom they're up against. And it allows a robust debate to happen.
The Senate also voted unanimously to increase the public notice of committee hearings from 72 hours to a week, an amendment from Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton). This is a vital step to ensure that everyday people with work, school, or child care commitments can better make their voices heard.