Democratic Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s crusade to audit the notoriously opaque Massachusetts Legislature is dividing members of her own party, with top elected officials aghast while activists, open government advocates, and some voters cheer her on.
DiZoglio, a veteran former lawmaker, won election last year on the promise she would bring a new level of scrutiny to the Legislature, and has pursued that mission with unswerving zeal since.
The Methuen Democrat threatened a lawsuit, launched a ballot initiative, and even performed an original song at her party’s annual convention in hopes of drawing eyeballs — and signatures — to her effort.
But the reception to her undertaking varies dramatically depending on what room you’re in.
While Democrats in the Legislature are either less fond of her campaign or quiet in their support, many Democrats — and even some Republicans — are backing her tall order of collecting roughly 75,000 signatures for the ballot initiative by late November.
According to campaign officials, the effort has so far notched “well over 10,000″ signatures in support of letting voters decide whether to give the state auditor the authority to audit the Legislature.
DiZoglio wants to conduct a wide-ranging review of the House and Senate’s budget, hiring, and spending practices, plus information about active and pending bills, the processes for appointing members to committees, and how the rules, policies, and procedures get made, according to letters sent to the chambers.
Many open government advocates agree.
The Legislature “is in serious need of some very bright sunshine,” said Jay Kaufman, a former Democratic state representative.
“Having seen it, it’s not pretty,” said Kaufman of the inner workings of the Legislature; he currently serves on the steering committee of the group the Coalition to Reform Our Legislature and signed the petition himself.
And while DiZoglio’s legal authority to audit the Legislature remains unclear, the auditor set out to make good on her campaign promise, announcing in March she was opening audits of both chambers with the goal of “increas[ing] transparency, accountability, and equity in an area of state government that has been completely ignored.”
When Democratic leaders stonewalled her plans months later, she announced her intention to sue the state. She has not yet done so.
For supporters, a longstanding frustration with the Legislature, known to be one of the most opaque in the country, drives their passion to let voters decide if DiZoglio can formally audit the body.
More than a dozen leaders of local Democratic town committees — including some who voted for DiZoglio in the 2022 Democratic primary and some who didn’t — told The Boston Globe they’ve long wanted more transparency from the Legislature, including insight into how decisions are made, who is making those decisions, and how their state representatives and senators are voting.
Republicans are pitching in, too. The MassGOP is helping DiZoglio gather signatures, and she’s collected $10,000 and $25,000 checks from longtime GOP donors Rick Green and Ernie Boch Jr., respectively, Politico reported.
Unlike many other states, in the Massachusetts Legislature major bills are crafted behind closed doors and votes on bills at the committee level — where much of the heavy lifting occurs — are rarely made public, denying residents information on how their elected representatives voted at that stage.
While Democratic activists admit an audit may not answer all their questions, it would at least challenge the opacity of the State House. Sara Seinberg, who chairs her Democratic Town Committee in the tiny town of Leyden, said the Legislature should be more transparent on their own accord.
“If they believed they were doing such a great job there shouldn’t be a problem with having the people see the work,” said Seinberg. “The question for me is why the Legislature needs to be bullied into doing the right thing. . . . You can’t wave a banner saying ‘true blue Massachusetts’ and then not tell us what you’re doing.”
Dennis Bradley, who chairs the Harvard Democratic Town Committee, said he has been circulating signature forms, citing his community’s frustration with the Legislature’s “tone deaf lack of transparency.”
“Both hardcore activists and casual voters are overwhelmingly in support,” said Bradley, who said he proudly waved his lighted cellphone during DiZoglio’s convention performance.
Even some activists who didn’t vote for DiZoglio in 2022 said they back her effort, and signed the petition in the name of transparency. They believe those who feel they can’t support her publicly would vote “yes” on the question in the privacy of a voting booth.
“Democrats either hate this woman or they love her to death,” said Michael Grafton, who chairs the Weymouth Democratic Town Committee and supported DiZoglio’s primary opponent Chris Dempsey last year. “That doesn’t mean that transparency and the legislative audit is a bad thing.”
Though the activists are rooting her on, leadership in the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature has been far colder to the idea.
Senate President Karen Spilka, who spoke shortly after DiZoglio at the Sept. 23 convention, didn’t address the audit in her speech. She avoided taking questions from reporters afterward, as did Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who’s yet to weigh in publicly on whether DiZoglio can sue the Legislature into complying with her audit.
In August, state Senate counsel James DiTullio penned a three-page letter to Campbell asking the attorney general to reject DiZoglio’s petition to put a question on the ballot because it is “not in the ‘proper form.’”
DiTullio said DiZoglio’s petition should have instead been filed as a proposed constitutional amendment rather than a proposal for a new state law.
On Sunday, Spilka went on NBC10′s “At Issue,” to defend her position, arguing DiZoglio “does not have the authority.” Moreover, she stressed the Senate is already subject to an annual audit by an outside firm.
House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano, who was not at the convention, is also firmly against DiZoglio’s effort. In March, he wrote a scathing letter to DiZoglio saying he would not meet with her and criticized the effort as both unconstitutional and “wholly unnecessary” because, he argued, the House already discloses its financial information online.
A spokesperson for Mariano said his stance “has not changed” since, and referred a reporter to the March letter.
In an interview, DiZoglio said that since the convention, her campaign has seen “an influx” of volunteers, and the excitement around her campaign “is a long time coming.”
With the excitement, too, has come pushback, she said. She recalled a recent event where a lawmaker followed her team around, tapping voters on the hand as they reached to sign the petition, “saying don’t sign that, don’t sign that.”
“There are folks who are representative of the establishment and then there are the everyday Democrats who feel inspired about the opportunity to make meaningful change across state government,” DiZoglio said. “We already know folks who support the Beacon Hill establishment status quo are not thrilled about this.”
While the attorney general has already approved the language for DiZoglio’s question, among others, the auditor has a number of hurdles to clear before the ballot question could be considered.
Campaigns need to collect 74,574 signatures and file them with local officials by Nov. 22, and then with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6.
Ballot questions with enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024, where lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute, or decide not to act. If lawmakers don’t take action by May 1, campaigns must collect another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19, then the secretary of state’s office by July 3, to make the ballot.