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Fed up with wasteful spending, she launches a website to hold state accountable

Posted by Your Town  May 21, 2010 08:55 AM

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Lawmakers voting special pension increases for their friends; construction sites with multiple police officers directing traffic when a single civilian flagger could do the job; holidays like “Bunker Hill Day” and “Evacuation Day” set aside only for Suffolk County state workers.

Hardly a day passes when we are not reading about some new waste of public monies.

Yet at the same time, the Bay State does not even have the money to pay for the infrastructure necessary to keep our citizens safe. In 2007, the Federal Highway Administration reported that ten percent of the 5,500 bridges in Massachusetts are “structurally deficient.” And when it comes to the MBTA, as reported in this paper six months ago, “the T is funding only a tiny minority of capital projects that its own managers deem critical to protecting life and limb.”

I consider myself a progressive who believes in “limited, activist government,” as Bill Clinton used to put it. But, like voters from across the political spectrum, I am fed up with my tax dollars being diverted to insider deals and away from core government services that benefit the public.

Theoretically, since we are a democracy, voters have two options to express displeasure with their elected officials: 1) contact them and tell them; or 2) vote them out of office. But in Massachusetts, neither of these choices is very effective.

Let’s say you want to contact your legislator about an egregious expenditure and urge them to vote it down. It’s not that easy, because unless you’re a lobbyist or some other sort of insider, you only hear about votes after they have taken place. Even if you want to look up how your legislator voted on a certain issue, you have to know where to look, or take the time to call them and ask. It is no wonder the national pro-transparency group Sunshineweek.org ranked Massachusetts 38th out of 50 states, in terms of online accessibility to public records.

What about the next option, voting them out of office? According to Commonwealth magazine, in the 2008 election, just seventeen percent of Massachusetts House races were contested -- the lowest rate in the nation. It’s hard to vote the incumbent out when there are no other choices on the ballot.

What is needed is a group that will look out for the taxpayers, by actually helping voters hold their legislators accountable: that is, an advocacy group for fiscal reform. Amazingly, this does not already exist. There are think tanks focused on fiscal issues, and taxpayer foundations funded by business interests, but no groups that provide “Action Alerts” when a vote comes up about police details or pension reforms.

That is why a few fellow Massachusetts voters and I created www.voterscount.org. The organization is nonpartisan, and the mission is to educate and mobilize voters around issues of fiscal reform. The concept is simple: those who care enough about how their tax dollars are spent can sign up on the website, and they will be alerted by email when a vote comes up around frivolous holidays, pension reform, and other issues that have long been identified by fiscal watchdog groups as particularly wasteful. Subscribers will be asked to call or email their legislator and ask them to vote it down. Also in the works for the website is a “Legislator Scorecard,” so that come election time, voters can easily research how their legislator ranks in terms of standing up for the taxpayer.

Will making people work on Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day save enough to close the state’s $17 billion infrastructure maintenance gap, or the $22 billion public pension liability, or the billions of other dollars that are needed every year to educate our children and protect our fellow citizens? Of course not.

But it would send a message that elected officials respect that citizens work hard for the money they pay out in taxes and expect to see it spent appropriately, in a way that benefits the common good. And who knows? Maybe instilling a new culture on Beacon Hill, of respect for taxpayer dollars, will result in savings beyond what anyone can foresee right now.

Newton resident Emily Norton is an environmental consultant and mother of three children

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