Sunshine Week For Open Government: Our “Before” Picture

(This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative to discuss the importance of open government. My contribution is a tale from nearly 20 years ago, when a bill cutting capital gains taxes passed the Massachusetts Legislature with hardly anybody in the Legislature knowing about it. The story will help to correct an impression that the Republicans in our state would like to cultivate — that government secrecy is entirely the fault of the other party, although nobody comes out looking good. Sunshine aficionados — think of this as our “before” picture, compared to which our “after” picture will shine with even greater glory.)

Late in 1994, what Governor William Weld wanted really badly was a cut in state capital gains taxes. What House Speaker Charles Flaherty and Senate President William Bulger wanted really badly was an increase in the base salary for legislators, which had remained at $30,000 for more than a decade.

So the Governor, the Speaker and the Senate President made a deal. First, the Legislature sent the Governor the pay raise bill, which increased the base salary for Legislators to $46,000. The Governor did not sign the bill right away, but instead allowed it to sit on his desk while the Speaker and Senate President, late on a Wednesday afternoon, managed to pass the Governor’s tax cut without their members’ knowledge. Here’s how that happened.

A bill entitled “Tax Relief for Low Income Families,” was very quietly amended in the House to include the Governor’s capital gains tax cut. The amendment was offered by Republican Representative Edward Teague, and was quickly adopted on a voice vote. Then the bill (its title was not changed), was just as quickly passed by the Senate and sent to the Governor who wasted little time signing both the pay raise and the capital gains tax cut into law. We will probably never know who in the Legislature was in on the deal other than the Speaker, the Senate President and Representative Teague, but it was a very small group.

When the swap came to light, nearly everyone was outraged, especially the legislators who had been unaware of the last-minute amendment and understandably feared that their constituents would think they were out of the loop. New legislation of such import would ordinarily be brought to everyone’s attention, but this was apparently a special case. The Globe editorial page fumed — “arrogant troika,” they called the perpetrators. The members of the arrogant troika got out of Dodge for several days (on a “factfinding” mission to Ireland) to let things cool down. And eventually things did.

An afterword: today, neither of the laws involved in the deal is still in effect. The base salary for Legislators is now set by a formula tied to the median household income in the state, the result of a constitutional amendment ratified in 1999, and Governor Weld’s capital gains tax cut was undone in 2002. Sic transit gloria Troika.

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