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.

Make a comment

  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).

  6. Judith Feinleib says:

    I’m with you all the way on this one Will. I think the Brown victory was a tragedy for the state but more so for the country. People who supported him in the misguided belief that Reublicans would help Main Street are deluded and need to study history. Only the rich will benefit from Republican policy. A Democrat who is not afraid to speak out and do what is needed is welcome. Go for it!

    • VeraIskandarian says:

      My sentiments exactly. I agree with you complete and do not understand why everyone does not see this.

    • AquilaRivers says:

      The 22% of Dem’s who voted for Brown didn’t vote because of values, they voted out of protest. Let me bring to your attention a few articles that I found interesting:

      Poll: Mass. Voters Protested Against Weak Wall Street and [weak] Health Care Policies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/20/obama-backers-more-commit_n_429673.html

      Message from Massachusetts by Marcia Angell, M.D. “Well, that was a game-changer! But don’t misinterpret it (and don’t blame Martha Coakley’s lackluster campaign). Scott Brown’s victory was not about the principles of either party, nor was it about the size of government, nor even about health reform, except indirectly. It was about disillusionment and anger with government” & “Many people no longer trust Obama to work in their interests, or even to tell the truth. So they’ll vote for Republicans mainly because they’re the only other game in town, not because they subscribe to their principles.” Full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcia-angell-md/message-from-massachusett_b_432074.html

      Brown’s Massachusetts victory fueled by frustration with Washington [aka Obama], poll shows – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/22/AR2010012203167.html?wpisrc=newsletter

      Massachusetts Post-Mortem by Marshall Auerback. “A majority of Obama voters who switched to Brown said that “Democratic policies were doing more to help Wall Street than Main Street.” A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote. Surprise, surprise, policies do matter.” Full article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-auerback/massachusetts-post-mortem_b_431476.html

      Stephanie Taylor from Progressive Change Campaign Committee goes inside the numbers of the 22% of Dem’s who voted for Brown and how 82% of those voters want Democrats and Congress to be more progressive, not less progressive – great interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSl-tEjtrMo

      Celinda Lake, Coakley’s pollster: “If Scott Brown wins tonight he’ll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they’ve got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street.” Read full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/19/coakley-pollster-defends_n_428600.html

      Also, a lot of Dem’s stayed home, which essentially offered more votes to Brown when his base turned out in support.

  7. DanielKagan says:

    Will,

    I think you are taking exactly the right initiative. I hate to comment on national politics on this forum, but feel compelled. When Bush was President, I disliked the administration so much, that I tolerated the congressional sausage factory. Now that we have a president that honors the democratic process, our attention turns to Congress and complex issues such as healthcare. I don’t believe we are “taking back our government” as Brown trumpeted. We are confronting large complex issues that are first of all difficult to put into sound bites and that require sacrifice on all our parts to eventually get it right. Call it patriotism if you will. I am over 65 and am more than willing to give up what may be some benefits in Medicare, if it means that more people will be insured and we have a START on getting healthcare costs under control. To say that this is a simple problem, or to set it aside because Congress appears to be dysfunctional is what Brown successfully did – it’s call pandering.

    I don’t expect the healthcare initiative to get it right starting out, as I never expected any business I started to make money in the first years (at least not after the first one). I do hope that legislatures have a national interest over a local ones knowing that in time, the local interest will be far better off. That said, I am not blind to the deal making and opportunistic strategies to further other agendas and forsake the national interest. What I am furious about is the fact that what I thought was a party with a more or less common vision, turned out to be otherwise.

    Taking back our government is not electing someone like Brown, it is understanding the incredible complexities that face this country and a willingness to make personal sacrifice to build our country. It is understanding, that if you want to reduce a deficit, you need to build something – create value.

    Dan Kagan

  8. rafael baptista says:

    Will,

    Thanks for being proactive on this issue. The legislature’s budget should be open, and legislative meetings should be open. Even if the amounts are small relative to the entire state budget the principle is important.

    Arlington schools are struggling to make their budgets work, and if we in Arlington have to make tough choices so should the legislature.

    I think Scott Brown won for a number of reasons. Probably the biggest is a sense of entitlement by Coakley and the entire Democratic party. Coakley’s campaign had its back the people the entire time. It seemed she was interested in getting the support of the newspapers, the governor, legislators, lobbyists and trade unions. I guess she figured she had everyone who matters on her side. Too bad she forgot to listen to voters. I was constantly appalled to see her on TV with her back to crowds of supporters shaking some insider’s hand. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

    Brown was out talking to the voters – after all the Democratic machine was not about to talk to him anyway.

    What should not be lost on Democractic politicians is that even though we voters know Brown is hard right, a lot of Democrats, including me voted for him beause there is no way I was about to vote for a Senator who had not time for the voters.

    One other reason I voted for Brown was that he was a co-sponsor of Shared Parenting. Shared Parenting is extremely popular among voters. It won a referendum in 2005 with 85% of the vote. Its been the top issue on Governor Deval Patricks issues web sight – right from the start – until today. And yet the Governor despite paying lip service to the bill has not done anything to support it. He promised to convene a task force to study the bill but months later has done nothing.

    I voted for Patrick in the last election – but I’m almost certainly not voting for him this time.

    Will, you are one of the legislators in Arlington who keeps in good communication with the voters. I’m tremendously grateful for the meeting you arranged for a number of us to meet with legislators about Shared Parenting.

    Since then it has been very frustrating. The bill is languishing in committee again. Nobody is pushing it and it makes a lot of us pretty upset. I remember talking to legislators last time and members of the committee claimed they didn’t know about it even though it has been before judiciary for several years now.

    Another important bill is the Alimony Reform bill. Hugely popular, way over due, 71 co-sponsors. Why isn’t it out of committee?

    Judiciary set up a task force to study the bill and larded it over with lobbyists and the meetings are closed to the public. These should be public meetings. The public should be able to witness the deliberations – especially if its almost all legislators talking to lobbyists.

    The voters are in a mood to clean house later this year. I know I am. Either the legislature starts acting on the people’s business or we will find someone else.

  9. AquilaRivers says:

    I respect your decision and I’m shocked that this is actually happening. I think a lot of people are getting frustrated with the leadership – it seems that the majority of Dem’s are leading in weakness, which leaves people in a tough spot to both challenge and be respectful at the same time.

  10. AquilaRivers says:

    I put together a list of interesting news-clips, articles and responses to the Brown victory.

    Arianna Huffington: Arianna argued that Tuesday’s loss in Massachusetts could be a blessing in disguise for President Obama and Democrats if they actually use it to course correct before 2010: Arianna appears on Countdown: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-tv/arianna-massachusetts-los_b_429126.html: Her article “How Massachusetts Can Turn Out to Be a Blessing for Democrats: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/how-massachusetts-can-tur_b_430678.html

    Howard Dean on Hardball this past Wednesday, trying to explain to Chris Matthews why Dem’s voted for Brown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui4ElSz_bKU

    Celinda Lake, Coakley’s pollster: “If Scott Brown wins tonight he’ll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they’ve got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street.” Read full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/19/coakley-pollster-defends_n_428600.html

    Brave New Films interviews Celinda Lake and Stephanie Taylor of Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP4N09cE4Yw

    Stephanie Taylor from Progressive Change Campaign Committee goes inside the numbers of the 22% of Dem’s who voted for Brown and how 82% of those voters want Democrats and Congress to be more progressive, not less progressive – great interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSl-tEjtrMo

    The Young Turks – The Real Reason Coakley lost to Brown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTF2Xb6uvAw

    Salon.com’s Joan Walsh, a Democrat, says on Hardball that MA Senate race was lost due to Obama’s ineffectiveness in the White House – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nN454JeM4w

    White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledges the ‘Wake Up Call’ from MA special election race: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/20/white-house-recognizes-wa_n_429818.html

    Poll: Mass. Voters Protested Against Weak Wall Street and [weak] Health Care Policies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/20/obama-backers-more-commit_n_429673.html

    Obama announces new policies going after Big Banks, with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) jokingly saying to W.H. Economic advisor Paul Volcker: “This wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain special election in Massachusetts, would it?” Article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/21/geithner-summers-eclipsed_n_432129.html

    Today, the Inside Story from the Wall Street Journal: “For nearly a year, President Barack Obama’s economic team resisted measures to restrict the size and activities of the biggest U.S. banks. Two days after Democrats suffered a devastating election loss in Massachusetts, the White House rolled out a proposal to do just that.”
    Read here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704423204575017543560874692.html?mod=WSJ-hpp-LEFTTopStories

    Message from Massachusetts by Marcia Angell, M.D. “Well, that was a game-changer! But don’t misinterpret it (and don’t blame Martha Coakley’s lackluster campaign). Scott Brown’s victory was not about the principles of either party, nor was it about the size of government, nor even about health reform, except indirectly. It was about disillusionment and anger with government” & “Many people no longer trust Obama to work in their interests, or even to tell the truth. So they’ll vote for Republicans mainly because they’re the only other game in town, not because they subscribe to their principles.” Full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcia-angell-md/message-from-massachusett_b_432074.html

    Brown’s Massachusetts victory fueled by frustration with Washington, poll shows – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/22/AR2010012203167.html?wpisrc=newsletter

    Massachusetts Post-Mortem by Marshall Auerback. “A majority of Obama voters who switched to Brown said that “Democratic policies were doing more to help Wall Street than Main Street.” A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote. Surprise, surprise, policies do matter.” Full article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-auerback/massachusetts-post-mortem_b_431476.html

    Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks: “Before the Massachusetts election, the [Consumer Protection Agency] was slip sliding away… Now after the election, Obama adopts Elizabeth Warren’s position regarding this agency. If things stand as they are, this MA election can possible be a great blessing in disguise because the attitude of the White House is a million times more important than one Senate seat. That 60 votes and the super majority, they were never going to get it on strong legislation anyways, we saw what happened with healthcare. With healthcare, they widdled it away and compromised and negotiated and weakened it until corporate America loved it, and it was weak sauce – that they couldn’t even get involved.” Full clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei_wy5Y317c

    Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks, talks about Volcker and Goolsbee: “It’s not just the ideas behind it that are important; it’s not just that the top guy is important; it’s important that the guys that are executing the strategy and are upcoming up with the legislation and the details of the problem, and can understand it and fix it.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-r16rW1Wgg

    The Young Turks – Brown’s win woke up the establishment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8vIZW5pfws

    Democrat Martha Coakley: An Object Lesson In Complacency And Detachment by Jason Linkins – Linkins on Coakley: “Online and on the trail, her lackadaisical effort shows. I’ll be stunned if she pulls out this special election tonight, based upon my simple rule that candidates who make the most structural campaign mistakes tend to lose elections.” Article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/19/democrat-martha-coakley-a_n_428164.html

    And something that’s a bit on the fun side, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert take on the MA election – click the link and the video will open, very funny! They hold no punches for either side, although Colbert leans a bit to the Right and Stewart to the Left, still, funny! – Stewart takes on “safe” seats:

    John Stewart: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-18-2010/mass-backwards

    Stephen Colbert: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/261995/january-18-2010/massachusetts-special-election

    “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”- Teddy Roosevelt

    Will, I share the below quote with you because your co-leagues may “call you one thing” regarding standing up for transparency, but your response is very noble.

    “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else.” -Lucille Clifton

  11. PattyNolan says:

    Will: Thanks for your leadership. I hope others join you. It is easy to say “I support transparency and openness and accountability.” Yet the letter asking for simply that from a body you all control has only 8 signatures. ! How?

    Public trust has been eroding for so long that it will take time to rebuild. I applaud your insistence on walking the talk. WE as elected officials simply must be willing to be honest and truly open.

    As someone who has to abide by the Open Meeting Law in my role as local School Committee member, I would hope that your colleagues would see that they should hold themselves to the same standard they hold us.

    Patty Nolan
    Cambridge

    • JimMunsey says:

      My post to this web site three weeks ago echoes a lot of the same sentiment rippling through these responses: the Mass. legislative leadership is only looking out for their own best interests and not what matters most to their constituents. Scott Brown, in part, was elected as a protest that people are fed up with inaction and an attitude of “we know better than you” coming from our elected representatives.

      Let’s all push towards having the true definition of representative government become reality in the minds of our elected officials. Scott was a first step, and the Mass. state house leadership should be next in line to feel the discontent from the voters.

      Will – leadership comes from not only speaking out, but taking action to make your point. Stepping down from your leadership post and speaking out takes guts, and I applaud you for it. As others have mentioned, it is one way to assure your re-election. Count me in that camp and bring on the challenges to change how things are done on Beacon Hill. The arrogance up there has got to be ended.

  12. Spencer Robinson says:

    Who are the other 7 reps who endorsed greater transparency? I think we all must reach out and support these individuals. Likewise, it is imperative we hold the rest of the body accountable. Why didn’t they sign on? What are they prepared to do to ensure a bill is passed guaranteeing this necessary standard.

    • Thanks, Spencer. The Globe article includes the list.

      I think that a lot of additional members agree, but just aren’t quite ready to stick their neck out. There are also many who aren’t quite aware of the problems yet — it isn’t necessarily easy to sort through some of these issues. I think that we need to continue to work on making the proposals more specific and building a broader consensus with members — that’s the plan.

  13. Paul Looney says:

    The reform progress has been slow but at least you are making an effort. Taking a stand against questionable practices by leadership is risky but appreciated. I’d like to see a stronger push toward reducing all these unfunded mandates polluting our State.

    As for the “Shot heard round the world Part 2″ I can say I have never been prouder than the million plus Massachusetts voters who rejected Obama’s progressive agenda. Brown ran as the 41st vote.. plain and simple. He didn’t attack Martha and he barely mentioned her name. The D should be for Democrat but it sure seems like it stands for Denial after reading this thread. NJ/VA and now MA. The People want jobs… not a massive overhaul of health care and an enormous energy tax. Simple case of Overreaching that occurs with single party control. Does he follow Clinton’s mea culpa after 94 and give the people what they want or ram through his agenda. I suspect his ego is too big to admit failure and we will all suffer as a result. Hoping I am wrong. I guess we will all find out what the real message of Brown’s Victory was this Fall.

  14. [...] Brownsberger’s original piece was published on his website. Click here for access Post Published: 24 January 2010 Author: Aquila Found in section: Local politics, [...]

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