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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    Will Brownsberger
    State Senator
    2d Suffolk and Middlesex District