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State Treasurer Steve Grossman was kind enough to — very promptly — respond to a question posed to him last month: why do we need separate ballot questions for the two school projects to be funded by debt-exclusion overrides*? His response (boiled down): existing state policy promotes greater transparency and greater accountability (full text after the jump).

Transparency and accountability are important goals, but they don’t explain the policy’s requirement that override requests to fund school-building projects that receive funding through the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) be posed as separate ballot questions. There are three problems:

  • The policy means don’t promote the policy ends — separate ballot questions don’t add to (or diminish) transparency or accountability
  • The policy has a predictably harmful impact on larger municipalities
  • The policy perversely reinforces and extends Proposition 2-1/2

I’ll address each issue in a separate post, taking them in order. In this post, transparency and accountability.

The measure of transparency is information available to voters. With regard to school projects, the MSBA requires that:

The article, motion, resolution, order, vote must be project specific and must include specific information about the project location and scope.

The requirement mixes the good with the unnecessary. Providing project-specific information
creates transparency. Requiring project-specific questions does not. The goals of transparency would be equally well-served by a requirement that any article, motion, &c., must have project-specific information. Having separate override questions on the ballot does nothing to increase the volume of information on either the Angier or Cabot project.

The MSBA building process already requires extensive documentation for state-funded school building projects. If the MSBA wants to increase transparency, it could require that project-related documents be posted electronically — or even better, post the documents itself.

Accountability is a tougher nut to crack. In the end, accountability means responsibility. If there’s sufficient information to allow voters to judge the success of a project against the promises made at the beginning, there’s not much more that the MSBA can do to make elected officials more responsible. Ultimately, the only mechanism to hold elected officials responsible is the ballot box. If elected officials screw up the design, budgeting, or building process, Newton residents can vote them out.

The most valuable thing the MSBA can do is provide independent overview of design, budget, and build, which it does. And, the Department of Revenue already imposes significant accountability on projects funded with debt-exclusion overrides. As Ted Hess-Mahan noted in a comment, if the project costs go up by a non-trivial amount, the city has to go back to the voters with a separate override question or absorb the additional debt service in the operating budget. A debt-exclusion is not a blank check.

Having separate questions for Angier and Cabot makes Newton’s officials no more accountable.

The full text of Treasurer Grossman’s comment:

This MSBA policy (www.massschoolbuildings.org/guidelines/votes) has been in place since 2008 and has been consistently applied to all communities in the Commonwealth, large and small. It reflects the fundamental principle of transparency and open government so that the taxpayers are aware of how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent and can hold us accountable for our investment of public funds. This is in keeping with the open checkbook initiative we helped launch in 2011 http://www.mass.gov/opencheckbook, and the comprehensive financial disclosures about school projects that are available on the MSBA website: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org

Since its inception in 2004, MSBA has distributed more than 9.1 billion dollars in taxpayers’ money to the Massachusetts cities and towns for school construction. It is pivotal we continue to maintain the integrity and credibility of the program.

I look forward to working with the leadership and residents of the city in which I was born and live to realize all of our ambitious goals in the months and years ahead.
– State Treasurer Steve Grossman

*The override questions cover three school projects: Angier, Cabot, and Zervas. The first two are to be covered by debt-exclusion overrides. Because it is not expected to receive state funding, the Zervas project will be covered by the operating override. Debt-exclusion and operating overrides are different beasts (one temporary, the other permanent) and need to be separate questions.