Transparency and the Brown Victory (20 Responses)

This from a lifelong Democrat and continuing true believer in government spending: The heart of our problem is a sense of entitlement to spend the taxpayers’ money.

I recently endorsed a letter by several of my House colleagues that called for greater transparency in the House, including, most critically from my perspective, transparency in financial operations.

According to records that I obtained from the state controller in November, over the past five years, the House spent five million per year on non-personnel items — phones, computers, etc. (This includes spending through an account jointly managed with the Senate, but excludes spending managed exclusively by the Senate.)

Here is the problem, half of that $25 million went to five corporate entities and three of those five were, according to corporate records, run by the same individual. And, according to campaign finance records, that individual is a major donor to legislative leaders.

I have urged since early December that the speaker voluntarily and systematically disclose the records of how this vendor (and other house vendors) were selected and what the taxpayers got for their money. However, the legislature has exempted itself from the public records law and from the laws that govern purchasing of goods and services by state government, and the speaker has so far refused to make voluntary disclosures.

The December flap about the House legal bills is a related example. Even though the United States Attorney has said he has no objection to disclosure of the bills, the speaker continues to refuse to disclose them.

Similarly, house leadership has refused to allow a disclosure of staffing patterns. The majority of reps have a single hard-working aide. But there are many obvious pockets of overstaffing in the House and the speaker’s staff duplicates the expertise of committee staff.

Although a staff roster with assignments is unavailable even to the House membership, the total level of staffing is available from the controller’s office. Strikingly, although there have been some well publicized layoffs, the total head count in the House as of Saturday, January 16, 2010 was 665, only 4 below the level in mid-2008 before the recession began in earnest.

In the larger picture, these are small money items. Why make an issue out of them? To be fair, it is much harder to do the right thing on intimate management issues like this than to do the right thing on larger issues that have more remote consequences. Perhaps, the problem is near-sighted affection more than arrogant entitlement.

Either way, people on the street have — based on story after unpleasant newspaper story — a sense that the Massachusetts Democratic establishment is unable or unwilling to discipline itself. These smaller problems obscure real recent accomplishments like pension reform, ethics reform, transportation reform, and education reform, not to mention producing a timely budget in a deep recession.

That’s part of why Scott Brown, someone who holds many views that are not popular in Massachusetts, was able to take advantage of Martha Coakley’s anemic campaign and become our United States Senator. His victory here was not a reversal of Barack Obama’s election, but in many respects a repeat. Obama also ran as the people’s candidate (against an arrogant national Republican leadership).

I am privileged to represent a “safe” Democratic district, leadership has been good to me in my three years in the House and I plan seek reelection to the House next year. I don’t have a survival need or a vengeful or ambitious motive to speak up on these issues.

But I do believe that if we can’t do some public soul searching and admit some error, we Democrats are in for more blood-letting. I recently resigned from my House committee vice-chairmanship so that I could speak freely about these issues as a rank and file member.

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  1. WilliamPhillips says:

    As another life long Democrat, I couldn’t agree more, and I applaud your willingness to speak out. Pundits love to overly hype the significance of almost any event in politics, but it’s hard not to see the Brown election as a warning to local and national Democratic leaders. The temptations that arise from a one party legislature have long bedeviled Massachusetts, but let’s hope the leadership doesn’t continue to behave like Wall Street bankers, who clearly, just don’t get it.

  2. Spencer Robinson says:

    Will, Many thanks for your efforts to increase transparency and reduce expenses. I expect bucking your political party may make you unpopular with some of your collegues. Nevertheless, it’s the right thing to do and in the long run it will serve you well. As I stated on your blog several months ago, there are many “conservative” minded independant voters such as me, who have grown weary of the majority party’s focus on consolidating power instead of solving problems. Notice I didn’t say “I told you so…”
    “Safe”? You’re right to place that in quotations. Please let your collegues know the citizens of the Commonwealth are awake and paying attention to who’s voting for what.
    Best Regards, Spencer

  3. Nancy Oteri says:

    I think you are wrong, Will. Scott Brown holds many views that are popular in Massachusetts; you are just not paying attention or perhaps you’re just “whistling in the dark.” I think we are in for a rollicking good time, politically, in this new decade.

    • Sure, Nancy, I agree that some of his views are popular. I don’t mean to quibble about that. My point, in fact, is that his central theme — that the people deserve to be represented by someone who places them first — is extremely popular.

  4. DanielWinter says:

    I believe the Brown Victory was the result of three things, assuming that just because Kennedy had the seat and was a Liberal would win in the general election. Voter anger at the lack of “real change” in response to the recession. And Brown running a clever and effective campaign and Coakley running a rather bad one.

    I applaud you for speaking out about the lack of transparency in the legislature’s operations. But the problem in Massachusetts is Deep. We have a 300 plus year history of practices which may have made sense at one time, but today with the economy as bad as it is really is a problem for those of us who believe that Government is part of the solution. These kind of situations where friends are helped with patronage may not be a serious problem for small things, but when it becomes the majority of spending or the determining factor of who gets the contract, we have a problem. Union work rules in state contracts which make sensible management near impossible. Salaries, Overtime health and pension pay for some favored kinds of State, and local workers approaching obscene levels with corresponding unfunded liabilities and other work is outsourced and get no benefits but someone got a contract0. Democrats in our state will loose much power at every level of government, local, state and federal office holders will loose if Democrats can not figure out a way to make contract spending in Massachusetts more transparent and competitive. And we also need an attorney general to enforce similar rules on substantially public supported institutions like hospitals and their suppliers because I have run into situations where a private supplier worked deals with a hospital that caused the hospital to exclude competitive bids, lowering the hospital’s cost in one area while raising its cost in others.

    Only thing under our control is working for real changes to how things are done. This requires being clear about what we stand for. It requires us to charge a significant price for any compromise we support to get the business of the commonwealth done. And that we have a discussion on the principals we will apply to what we think government should do. I would also suggest that the an attempt be made at creating an accrual budgeting process vs the Cash basis budgets that the state works with now. It should be possible to budget expenses and estimate revenue out 5 years; 10 years. And formulate budget priorities and labor cost decisions based on the present cost of doing something over the life of a program. It would help reduce the gimmicky nature of budget discussions most of us assume that go on in the legislature.

    In Government dependent enterprises like hospitals, independent agencies and public universities and state agencies a requirement that full contracts and bids be public and available on the internet, for all contracts over 500 dollars. and make it unlawful to tie different types of goods and services together into a bundle. Create a playing field which requires competition to get these contracts, which are substantially public funds.

  5. bob_sprague says:

    I appreciate your efforts to improve transparency, Will. You write:

    “… half of that $25 million went to five corporate entities and three of those five were, according to corporate records, run by the same individual. And, according to campaign finance records, that individual is a major donor to legislative leaders.”

    Can you say who that individual is? I am asking for publication on YourArlington.com.

    Thank you.

    Bob Sprague

    • The top five vendors in the House and Joint Accounts over the past five years are:

      EAGLE GRAPHICS INC $4,074,730.05
      FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES GROUP INC $3,839,368.89
      NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES $2,777,836.54
      JCI COMMUNICATIONS. $1,578,488.66
      LAN-TEL TECHNOLOGIES INC $1,551,633.65

      All three technology/communication companies on this list (FTG, Lan-Tel and JCI) are, according to records at mass.gov/sec, controlled by a Stephen J. Gillis of Cohasset. That name appears on a number of contributor lists. A search of the OCPF database at mass.gov/ocpf indicates that this individual has donated over $28,000 to Massachusetts candidates, including many legislative leaders (both Democrat and Republican).

      The Gillis companies are enrolled on in the state’s Comm-PASS purchasing system to bid on state work (but legislative work does not require any bidding process).

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