Out of the shadows, Mass. quasi-public agencies and the need for budget transparency


By Deirdre Cummings, legislative director tax and budget policy, MASSPIRG, Boston, Mass.

 Those who know Massachusetts government are accustomed to the fact that many of the Commonwealth’s public functions are performed by “quasi-public agencies” such as independent boards or commissions that are funded by their own fees, combined in some cases with general funds; and governed by their own independent bodies that are not directly answerable to the legislature or governor. You’d think that there would be an official tally of how many such agencies exist, and how big their budgets are. You might also think that, given their exemption from normal channels of public oversight, quasi-publics would need to be more transparent than other parts of government.

 You’d be wrong. Our quasi-public agencies fail to disclose basic spending information online despite the fact that their combined budgets represent 33 percent of additional government activity that is not included in the budget or covered by the normal oversight process. A new report by MASSPIRG Education Fund, Out of the Shadows, Massachusetts Quasi-Public Agencies and the Need for Budget Transparency, provides the first combined tally of the budgets of quasi-public agencies and their level of budget transparency.

 Massachusetts’ 42 quasi-public agencies operate largely under the budget radar despite performing vital government functions, some which have been on the front pages recently.

 Increasingly, the public, including lawmakers, local officials and the media expect that all government expenditures will be posted online and easily accessible through a Google-like search function. The good news is that the House recently adopted language as part of its fiscal year 2011 budget that includes transparency for quasi-publics as part of broader spending disclosure and accountability reform that includes spending on tax credits. Attention will now move to the Senate.

The new report calls for a number of reforms, including comprehensive disclosure, creation of an oversight board for quasi publics, and the requirement that contracting at quasi publics to be done through a transparent process like Comm-Pass, the state online procurement system, to name just a few. For more, see executive summary of report.



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