BOSTON — As they gear up to spend nearly $5.3 billion in pandemic relief funding, Democratic legislative leaders are vowing to make the process of spending the windfall “open and transparent.”
But Beacon Hill watchers note the Legislature’s record for spending is anything but open and transparent, earning it a reputation for secrecy.
“This is probably the least transparent legislature in the country, so there’s not a lot of credibility to their claims,” said Paul Craney of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “And they really don’t seem to have a plan for the funds. They’re just saying, ‘Give us all the money, and we’ll disburse it.’”
For weeks, Democratic leaders quarreled with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker over control of the state’s share of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus signed in March by President Joe Biden.
Baker initially proposed a plan to spend $2.8 billion of the money allocated to Massachusetts, leaving the rest to the Legislature to decide how to distribute.
But the Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected the plan and sent a new one back to Baker, transferring most of the money into a fund controlled by the Legislature. Baker signed the bill.
Legislative leaders offered to leave Baker with $200 million for pandemic-related emergencies.
On Monday, Baker filed a new bill calling for spending $2.9 billion on housing, updated water and sewer infrastructure, job training and other priorities.
“We are eager to work with the Legislature to put these funds to work, and our $2.9 billion proposal will immediately aid those hardest hit by COVID-19 like communities of color and lower-wage workers,” Baker said. “It’s crucial that the Legislature act quickly and not hold up these important investments.”
Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, have vowed to use a “open, transparent and thorough public process” to decide how the money is spent. They have committed to holding public hearings over the summer to discuss the plans.
Despite those assurances, observers and even some lawmakers are skeptical.
“I don’t know how anyone could trust legislative leaders that they will be more transparent, as they have such a terrible track record,” said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown. “Our state ranks as one of the worst in the nation for transparency, and legislative leaders have done nothing to change that.”
Ella McDonald of Act on Mass, a coalition of progressive groups and unions that advocates for more open state government, said House and Senate leaders need to be more open with deliberations over how to spend the relief money.
“If we look at the budget process, there is definitely a lack of transparency, and we don’t see a lot of opportunities for citizens to participate,” she said.
The group is among those calling on Mariano and other House leaders to adopt rules that would improve accountability, such as disclosing votes by committees and giving lawmakers — and the public — at least 72 hours notice before a bill comes up for a vote. Mariano has delayed the vote until this month.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the Legislature is “notoriously secretive” and should be more open as it decides how to spend the federal relief money.
“The need for transparency becomes even more apparent when we’re dealing with huge sums of taxpayer money like this,” he said. “We need more public oversight of the process.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.