Before the Special House Committee on Ethics in Favor of an Act Improving the Laws Relating to Ethics and Lobbying
Good afternoon. My name is Deirdre Cummings and I am the Legislative Director for Legislative Director for MASSPIRG. MASSPIRG is a 35 year old, non-profit, non-partisan member-supported public interest advocacy organization that works to protect consumers, enhance public health, promote public transportation and foster responsive, democratic government. I am here today in full support of an “Act Improving the Laws Relating to Ethics and Lobbying” filed by Governor Patrick and proposed by the bipartisan, Task Force on Public Integrity.
Thank you for your leadership in holding this hearing on the bill so quickly. The proposed bill would significantly increase transparency, and accountability in government. The bill enhances the authority of the Ethics regulators and increases penalties for violations.
While we are in support of the bill, I propose a number of amendments to strengthen or clarify the new rules.
1) Revolving Door Provision
Currently: Prohibits a former state employee or elected official, including members of the Legislature, from acting as a legislative agent before the governmental body with which he was associated for one year after he leaves that body. G.L. c. 268A, 5(e), c. 268B, 1, 5, 6.
Proposal: Amend G.L. c. 268A, 5(e) and c. 268B, 1, 5 and 6 to expand the revolving door provision to include executive agents. Allow the Ethics Commission to establish by regulation the meaning of governmental body with which he has been associated.
Recommendation: This is a good revolving door policy change; however I would suggest that you include a “reverse” revolving door policy as well. This would be similar to what was in President Obama’s recent executive order on ethics. A reverse revolving door allows for the screening of incoming executive and legislative officials for a conflict of interest based on the lobbying of specific agencies as a legislative or executive agent over the last 2 years.
2) Gratuities Statute
Currently: Gifts of substantial value given to public employees violate the gratuities statute only if given for or because of any specific official act performed or to be performed. G.L. c. 268A, 3; see Scaccia v. State Ethics Commission, 431 Mass. 351 (2000).
Proposal: Amend G.L. c. 268A, 3 to clarify that gifts of substantial value given for or because of the employees official position violate the gratuities law, and provide the Commission with specific direction to adopt regulations to define substantial value (which shall not be less than $50) and establish exceptions where the circumstances do not present a genuine risk of a conflict or appearance of a conflict.
Recommendation: I would suggest you include definitions beyond a monetary threshold of $50 to define substantial value. We should include travel, meals, and other in-kind support. I’d also suggest that we include immediate family in the definition of who receives the gift.
3) Transparent State Budget
Recommendation: I suggest that you include language to require, as part of the reforms, a fully transparenct state budget as laid out in a bill just filed in both the House and Senate entitled, An Act Relative to Transparency in State Revenues and Expenditures. The bill directs the Secretary of Administration and Finance to create and maintain a searchable online database detailing the costs, recipients, and purposes for all appropriations, including contracts, grants, subcontracts, tax expenditures and other subsidies funded by the state government. The data base will include state revenue sources and expenses including the “quasi-government” agencies. The web portal shall be accessible to the public and updated on a regular basis.
A transparent government allows citizens, the media, and watchdog groups to hold government officials accountable. The ability to see how government uses the public purse, checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.
The stakes are high. Local and state lawmakers have been accused of taking money in exchange for political favors, and Massachusetts faces recurring budget shortfalls and a host of challenges that require major public investment. Controversies related to the Big Dig and subsidies for large corporations and development projects have sullied the public's trust. While soundly defeated, recent calls for a repeal of the state's income tax are a warning sign that Massachusetts citizens want answers. An open transparent government, including a transparent budget, will allow our citizens to see real reform and re-build confidence on our government.