Sunlight Act on move, targeting legislature and governor

The Massachusetts State House

The Massachusetts State House AP


State House News Service

Published: 01-28-2024 10:02 AM

BOSTON — While the bill has a long path ahead of it, advocates for more government transparency are encouraged that a House-Senate committee on Tuesday gave a favorable report to a bill whose sponsors say it will bring needed “sunlight” to the legislative process and subject the governor’s office to the public records law.

The Joint Committee on Rules, co-chaired by Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem and Rep. William Galvin of Canton, on Tuesday released the Sen. Jamie Eldridge bill (S 1963). While top Senate Democrats did not offer any indication Wednesday about plans to put the bill up for floor votes, the committee reported the legislation to the Senate where it is now pending in the clerk’s office.

The progressive advocacy group Act on Mass has been pushing for passage of what its calls the Sunlight Act and says it will require all recorded committee votes to be posted on the Legislature’s website, require that committee hearings be scheduled at least a week in advance, make written testimony submitted to committees publicly available, and subject the governor’s office to the public records law.

The bill calls for the public records law to be applied to the governor’s office for records “created or received after noon on January 5, 2023,” which was the hour that Gov. Maura Healey took the oath of office. The Healey administration’s claims of increased transparency in public records access have been tempered by claiming several exemptions when some documents have been requested by reporters.

According to the bill, public testimony received by a legislative committee “that is readily capable of being reproduced shall be made available to the public upon request; provided, however, that the legislative committee may redact public testimony that includes sensitive personal information or information that may jeopardize the health, wellness or safety of an individual.”

House and Senate Democrats for years have been unable to resolve transparency reform differences through their internal rules, with the House unwilling to go along with some Senate-backed transparency measures, and the bill instead calls for new laws.

“We could not be more thrilled to see the Committee move this bill forward in the legislative process,” Act on Mass Executive Director Erin Leahy said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Transparency is really a democracy issue. If you can’t see how your lawmakers are voting or who is influencing them, never mind if you don’t have enough notice to testify at a hearing, how are you supposed to meaningfully participate in the lawmaking process? The Sunlight Act would go a long way toward opening up our state government to the voices of everyday people. Today is a great day for our movement.”

Many bills die on committee voice votes that leave no trail of whether individual lawmakers are for or against proposals. Voting rules are the province of each committee and while members can seek recorded votes they often agree to move bills without such votes.

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Act on Mass asserts that this lack of transparency is a cause of inaction on “popular progressive issues.”

As for the vote tally on the Sunlight Act itself, the News Service did not receive a breakdown of the committee vote from either Rules Committee chair’s office Wednesday.

The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Rules in February 2023 and is advancing without having had a public hearing.

In a statement released by Act on Mass, Eldridge said he was proud to file the bill.

“I am a firm believer that the more information the public has about legislation on Beacon Hill, and the legislative process, the more responsive elected officials will be to their constituents,” Eldridge said.