Availability of information about legislative spending

This post relates to a fairly technical question that has been the subject of some confusion on the House floor: Exactly what information is available to the public about spending on legislative operations?

In summary, all high level data and much detailed data about legislative spending is publicly available. What is not available is supporting data for non-payroll spending, for example, contracts and invoices. Additionally, auditing of non-payroll expenditures appears to be superficial.

Here is the more detailed inventory:

  • The level of planning detail in the legislative appropriation process is reasonable — many accounts in the budget receive much larger bulk appropriations.
  • Appropriations and the total amounts of spending in legislative accounts (House is 9600-0000 and joint is 9700-0000) are visible on the main Administration and Finance website in the same way as other accounts.
  • The subsidiary classification — into payroll, employee benefits and operating expenses — also appears at the same website. According to Administration and Finance, the data at this level of classification is based on start of year estimates of allocation, not necessarily final accurate spending data. The legislature, as a separate branch, is not subject to the same obligations to report on final spending details to Administration and Finance. But the subsidiary totals are verifiable based on other publicly available data as further discussed below.
  • Although the legislature is not subject to A&F rules, payroll spending is run through the state’s main payroll system and is therefore public information. Legislative employees are included in the online publication of state employee incomes by by the Boston Herald.
  • All disbursements, payroll or otherwise, chargeable against the legislative accounts, run through the Commonwealth’s accounting system. As such, they are public records and may be requested from the comptroller by any member of the public. Click here for a spreadsheet provided by the comptroller containing all non-payroll disbursements from legislative accounts for the last five fiscal years, together with some cross-tabs analyzing that spreadsheet.
  • Supporting documents for spending — requests for proposals, contracts, invoices — are not available for inspection. The records of the legislature are not public records.. Purchasing procedures in the legislature are exempt from regulation by the Controller.
  • Under the House Rule 85A and Joint Rule 34, annual audits of the House account and biennial audits of the joint legislative accounts are to be deposited in the House Clerk’s office. Recent audits available in the Clerk’s office include:

    These audit reports provide no information and express no opinions about the procedures for legislative purchasing or the objects of legislative spending. They merely report the total amounts appropriated and spent. The legislature appears to be exempted from audit by the Comptroller.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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