State Auditor Diana DiZoglio, pictured at a July 26, 2023 press conference announcing her push for litigation against the Legislature. (Chris Lisinski/SHNS)
Legislative leaders in predominantly deep-blue Massachusetts must be feeling a little red-faced after finding out what Democratic State Party members think of their steadfast refusal to be held under the state auditor’s microscope.
That’s because even the political base that has successfully stacked the state Legislature with Democrats wants those whom they’ve helped elect to face public scrutiny.
Despite the vehement opposition of Beacon Hill Democrats to Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s bid to delve into the inner workings of lawmakers, Massachusetts Democratic Party membership has endorsed the Methuen Democrat’s push to inject more transparency and oversight into the oftentimes secretive legislative process.
For months, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have resisted DiZoglio’s audit initiatives, arguing she lacks the authority under state law — and that the information she seeks is available in the public domain or is already audited by other entities.
After months of weighing her decision on the matter, Democratic Attorney General Andrea Campbell earlier this month stated that DiZoglio lacks the authority to audit the Legislature without lawmakers’ consent.
Mariano and Spilka applauded Campbell’s decision, saying in a joint statement that it “reinforced our long-held position that the Auditor does not have the statutory or constitutional authority to audit any other separate branch of government.”
DiZoglio disagreed with the attorney general and said she would still conduct a review even if it triggered a lawsuit from the Legislature.
Despite their apparent victory, the House speaker and Senate president face the uncomfortable – and embarrassing – prospect of opposing the will of their state party’s membership on this matter.
The Democratic State Committee, on a unanimous voice vote, accepted a nonbinding resolution last Wednesday backing DiZoglio’s efforts to hold the Legislature accountable, a MassDems spokesperson said.
“The Massachusetts Democratic Party wholeheartedly supports periodic, independent audits of the Massachusetts Legislature to strengthen the pillars of transparency, efficiency, and fiscal responsibility within the Massachusetts Legislature and appeals to all legislative members to fully and transparently support this pivotal task,” the resolution states.
About half of the committee members, composed of 400 Democrats from throughout the state, participated in the hybrid meeting.
Under party rules, members weren’t required to disclose conflicts of interests ahead of voting due to the unofficial nature of the resolution, the spokesperson said. There were no objections to the resolutions package, which included the proposal dealing with the auditor, the spokesperson said.
The resolution also states that “the Legislature often operates with limited public oversight, having not been audited in over three decades” and the Legislature’s “exemptions around pivotal transparency laws such as the Open Meeting Law, Public Records Law, and Conflict of Interest Law, highlight a significant accountability gap.”
That’s a stunning rebuke by a political body unwilling to hew to the Democratic legislative leadership line.
Buoyed by the nonbinding stamp of approval from party members, DiZoglio has indicated she might soon use that momentum as she weighs her office’s legal options to enable her review of the Legislature.
“It sends a clear message that everyday Democrats from every corner of the commonwealth support our efforts to audit the Legislature to help increase transparency, accountability and accessibility,” DiZoglio told the State House News Service. “That is a pretty strong statement of support considering the tremendous push-back we have received …”
Asked about legal action under consideration by her office in light of the MassDems’ resolution, DiZoglio told the News Service it’s “premature to have that conversation.”
“Our team is conducting a thorough review of the 17-page rebuttal that the attorney general sent our way supporting legislative leaders’ arguments against an audit, so we are ensuring that a very thorough review is conducted before making any statements,” said DiZoglio, who suggested a path forward would be clarified sometime after Thanksgiving.
She added, “MassDems make it clear they support any legal action to ensure compliance with the state Legislature.”
The auditor said her focus remained on the signature-collecting effort underway for a possible 2024 ballot question seeking a law to explicitly outline the auditor’s ability to probe the Legislature. Supporters needed to file signatures from at least 74,574 registered voters with local elections officials by Nov. 22, which they did with thousands of signatures to spare.
“Obviously, we see this as some pretty high-level support from the Democratic Party,” said Nancy Stenberg, a State Committee member and co-founder of the progressive group Our Revolution Massachusetts. She said the resolution can be used to support the ballot initiative.
Realistically, DiZoglio’s only chance to pry open the Legislature’s books lies with the voters through this ballot initiative.
But even if that referendum succeeds, the attorney general might still have the final say on its legal legitimacy.
We only know that aside from those 200 lawmakers and one state constitutional officer, the vast majority of Massachusetts residents want the auditor to shine a light on our byzantine legislative process.