By: Lana Taffel, Massachusetts Fellow
When we live in a state whose values relatively align with our own, especially one that is a national leader in education, healthcare infrastructure, climate innovation, and many more progressive endeavors: it becomes easy to lose sight of how our government conducts itself, and if it’s really behaving in the most democratic manner possible. In a state like Massachusetts which prides itself on being particularly progressive in its norms, this phenomenon of complacency becomes particularly apparent. More than likely if you’re reading this you know a little bit about the nature of Massachusetts policy, and perhaps a bit about the current issues the Massachusetts government is concerned with. But what you more than likely are unaware of is how terribly lacking our government is in accessibility and transparency. And even more than that, how strongly our legislators have resisted any response to this problem. Or how this has been a continuous fight between Massachusetts citizens and legislators – to absolutely no avail.
Massachusetts is consistently ranked among the least transparent states, usually falling in the bottom 10 in terms of the state’s public record laws. We are the only state in the country that has the governor’s office, the judiciary, and the legislature claiming to be exempt from public records law. This has been put in place by lawmakers and is completely contradictory to the way we perceive ourselves as a state. The laws specifically make it difficult to access public records, as filing a records request can be easily denied or ignored using exemptions. Such exemptions are overused to shield the public from what’s happening in government – and the only real way to challenge this system is in the form of a lawsuit (which I need not explain why this is an extremely inaccessible, disproportionate expectation of the filer based on the request). Massachusetts also does not require the votes taken within committees to be public, therefore this information is not publicly available or necessarily accessible upon request. Though committee votes at the federal level are public, this has not extended to the state government. As I will discuss below, The MA government may have higher levels of approval than other states, but this by no means exempts them from public record law, public committee votes, or the right of their constituents to hold them accountable.
I, myself, was largely unaware of the transparency problem within the Massachusetts legislature. I was taught by my Massachusetts public school education that transparency was the cornerstone of democracy. I grew up in the turmoil of a post-9/11 world, in the face of extreme political polarization. As a part of a generation with higher levels of mental health issues, dealing with extremely high cost of living, and disparate inequalities both domestically and globally, we face political polarization every waking moment of our lives. And with the age of the internet and constant media coverage; there is no escape from our predicament. Young people become politically aware faster; quickly gaining knowledge without the political power to enact change. Our condition as a generation is exhausting. Before we were even old enough to articulate, it felt like the world was falling apart around us, and we were somehow expected to pick up the pieces. Through the repeated tragedies and disasters my generation collectively lived through and mourned, my parents, teachers, and peers would feel grateful to live in Massachusetts; a state that was progressive enough to protect us from gun violence, the targeting of the LGBTQ+ community, the stripping of reproductive rights, and many more issues. We were grateful for living in such a blue state, one that protected us from the unique and unprecedented challenges of our time.
In my public school education, I learned about the struggle of the federal government through history to promote democracy, both its successes and failures, and everything in between. We grappled with the complexities of democracy in this nation and repeatedly saw the necessity for involved participation in government from US citizens, and the need for the federal government to make its work as accessible and transparent as possible to the average U.S. citizen. All the while, we learned nothing about our state government: not how to participate, not how it functioned, not what policies it held, nothing of the sort. I grew up politically aware of the federal government, but completely uneducated about the government much closer to me. It felt as though somewhere in the process, we ourselves exempted the Massachusetts legislature from accountability. What was happening at a national level grabbed our attention so violently that it was hard to start within our own state. Since we felt so lucky to live in a progressive state, it didn’t occur to us that democracy within the Massachusetts legislature may be suffering from a lack of transparency. We had been continuously taught how essential deliberation, conversation, clarity, and accessibility were to democracy from the age of seven onwards. If a seven-year-old could tell you why something was essential to government, one would assume it to be intuitive to those elected to the highest offices in the state. If the federal government has all its votes public – why would it occur to us that our state government, which always appeared to be so far ahead of the federal and other state governments, could be withholding their votes from the public? What I’m trying to say here is that this issue feels incredibly intuitive, so we as Massachusetts citizens can’t imagine that it would even be an issue in the first place.
From my time in the Massachusetts public schools to now, I have become increasingly actively involved in our state government on the issue of climate justice. The Massachusetts government exempting itself from public record law and open meeting law has consistently been a barrier to my ability to organize effectively and hold my legislators accountable. Many bills that I and other young people work on die in committee without any explanation as to why; it leaves us without a clear path forward and without feedback to improve future bills we may work on. Yes, we can play into this system and speak to individual members of committees, but it requires much more energy for an opinionated and vague account of what took place behind closed doors. The same legislators who have made this information unavailable to us encourage us to participate in the system, to be at meetings, and make our voices heard but don’t seem to see the sheer inaccessibility we are fighting against as we compromise our time and commitments to meet with them.
It is a fact that the MA government does not invite youth participation in its practices, and we are repeatedly shown this. Recently I testified in support of one of the priority bills I have lobbied for this legislative session at a hearing that was supposed to take place in mid-June. Yet it was moved less than a week before to occur on May 17th, without proper warning. Naturally, this meant a last-minute scramble to put together the resources and support we were going to gather in the next month, in a single week. This is not the first time this has happened in my work this year either, as we became aware of the rules debate mere days before it occurred. And the full extent of the public debate on the amendment we cared about most was this seconds-long rejection on a voice vote. This repeated pattern of moving updates for key decisions or events directly reduces the amount of support and resources advocacy groups are able to gather. We are unable to plan ahead for those with school or work commitments to be present, or for them to have the time to provide testimony or contact their representatives. It is difficult enough to attend hearings and meetings that occur during school or work hours – made even more difficult by the erratic alterations in scheduling without warning. All we want is the opportunity for our legislators to hear why a bill may be important to us – to be represented by those we elect to represent us.
We and many others organizing around the statehouse have wondered: what are our legislators so terrified of when it comes to this issue? When you bring it up to most legislators, they immediately brush it off or seem resistant to the cause: Why does this have to happen? Is this really necessary? Don’t you think you’re wasting your time on this? To our dismay, we have learned that even our allies on social and climate justice issues are often against us on this issue. A surprising response we have gotten from such allies is that these alterations wouldn’t allow them to support our key policy issues as effectively. That somehow, their votes being public affects how they would vote. While this seems strange to me in principle, I suppose I can understand their concern that those who care about these issues would follow their actions and respond accordingly. Their concern is that perhaps they will be held accountable for the discrepancy between what they say and actually do. To this worry, I say, if you are really so unable to vote progressively publicly, so be it. I would rather your values be clear for your constituents, who can re-elect someone who will serve their values openly and transparently – because I believe that your lack of these qualities is fundamentally undemocratic, and opposed to the values we’re working towards.
Somewhat different from the aforementioned cases, are the climate justice allies we have in the statehouse who are terrified of the higher-ups disempowering them. I understand the difficult position many progressive legislators feel they are in when promoting this change – many times I have been told that these allies will be unable to gain the necessary traction and power to get our priority bills passed. And I have heard how legislators have been essentially bullied out of supporting any sort of rule change for increased transparency. But I want there to be some reflection on what these conditions tell us: it is an admittance that the MA legislature is currently run by the relationships legislators have with one another, not by the opinions of constituents. Legislators in MA stay in power for decades, with the rare exception of a turnover by retirement. It is extremely difficult to win against an incumbent. The MA legislators stay in the statehouse for years and years gaining power and influence, knowing as the years pass on it becomes more likely they will get the privilege of deciding when they finally leave. Meaning the newer legislators must bend to the incumbents’ will – because, after all, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
It is almost fitting that a state that is so highly ranked for education, would behave as the founding fathers did when they established the electoral college: to believe that only the most powerful, rich, privileged, and educated people should have a say in government. Because it is a privilege to get into that statehouse and a privilege to have power in it. When we are really looking at this behavior critically, it is fundamentally rooted in the belief that only those able to get elected should be able to influence decisions. As students still receiving our education in Massachusetts, we are taught daily in our history and politics courses the importance of democracy in government. In principle, we are taught that strong democracies necessitate transparency. We are taught how people are meant to create change by participating in the system that is meant to enact it. When you make this system inaccessible to us – you are defying the education system you have built and maintained. I find it confusing to have spent most of my life in this system that champions democracy, yet my state government continuously refuses to practice key aspects of it. It’s frustrating to be a young person born into a system that doesn’t give the proper education and resources to participate in it. I have found on many occasions that we are spoken to as if our youth makes us ignorant, that somehow we are unreasonable for promoting transparency – but I want to make it crystal clear that we are products of YOUR education about democratic values. As our quality of life is going down and politics are becoming more polarized than ever – can you blame us for wanting to know how our own representatives vote? For wanting some sort of accountability in the statehouse we trust with our futures? This, to me, seems like such a small fix. Something that requires very little of legislators, but makes a big difference in our organizing and our ability to participate in government.
If Massachusetts continues to act like a leader on these issues, the MA statehouse needs to be open to accountability. The overall resistance to committee votes being public reflects a disregard for the values of democracy and for the values of the state. I am certain that if this issue were to be set as a ballot question, we would see unprecedented levels of support from the general public that they should have a right to see how the representatives they elected are voting in committees.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole process, it’s that I was entering this issue initially with entirely too much optimism. I genuinely believed that legislators may change the rules or the general laws in order to align with what is so clearly reasonable. But what I should have considered is that the legislators, as people in power, will likely never vote to disempower themselves. Whether it be via the rules or the general laws – we need to stop devaluing transparency collectively. The perceived impossibility of doing what’s right does not mean you should stop voting for it or supporting it. If you truly do value transparency – you should be willing to stand for it. And as our representatives fail to do this, I wait for the day when a ballot question on the issue passes at upwards of 80% – because for those not in the statehouse it is scarily clear just how unreasonable it is for our representatives to exempt themselves from public record law and open meeting law; and in a larger sense from accountability.
Lana Taffel is a Massachusetts Fellow who is currently a sophomore at Brandeis University majoring in Philosophy and Politics with a minor in History of Ideas. She grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, and now lives in Waltham, Massachusetts. Beyond Brandeis, she hopes to pursue a law degree in order to combine her passion for academics and organizing for social justice issues. Prior to joining Our Climate, she was the Coordinator of Sunrise Watertown and the Education Lead for Uplift Watertown, both of which taught her about community/grassroots organizing and the rich variety of skills everyone has to offer the climate justice movement. At Our Climate, she hopes to learn to more effectively empower communities to uplift their marginalized populations and to move towards a sustainable future.