At Williamsburg event, state auditor says she has support for push to scrutinize Legislature

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-30-2023 2:43 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — State Auditor Diana DiZoglio knows she’s going up against powerful interests with her push to audit the Massachusetts Legislature, but she’s forging ahead regardless.

“We’ll be preparing a report,” she told an audience of 30 at the Anne T. Dunphy School gymnasium this week. “We may need to go to court.”

Speaking at the invitation of grassroots activist groups Indivisible Williamsburg and Indivisible Northampton, DiZoglio told the receptive crowd the Legislature “desperately needs an audit.” Her office is required to audit all state agencies every three years, she said, and is already auditing the governor’s office and the judiciary.

Legislative audits, which are routine in other states, have been performed in Massachusetts several times in the last century, she said, although it took considerable research efforts to unearth the evidence.

House Speaker Ron Mariano has said he will not cooperate with the audit, claiming in a March letter to DiZoglio that any “performance assessment” of House actions would exceed her office’s legal authority and violate basic separation-of-powers principles.

DiZoglio said transparency is lacking in state government — a 2019 Pioneer Institute study ranked Massachusetts near the bottom in fiscal transparency, and a 2022 article in Forbes magazine made a case for the state being the least transparent in the nation.

“If we had a truly democratic process, we would invite people to sit at the table instead of holding closed-door meetings and passing bills in the dead of night,” she said. “For all the talk of diversity, equity and inclusion, we can’t leave out transparency.”

DiZoglio said there are many lawmakers who support her efforts, but they’re not willing to speak out for fear of retaliation.

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She also highlighted the efforts of her office to reform the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program intended to compensate towns for untaxed state properties within their borders, a cause she has spoken of on previous visits to rural western Massachusetts.

And she cited other agencies she’s targeting for an audit, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which has become notorious for unreliable and unsafe operations.

“It’s unacceptable that this has been allowed to continue this long,” she said.

Audience member John Skibiski of Northampton said he has been part of three different land takings involving the state Department of Transportation, and said he has found that “nothing seems to register” with the agency.

When MassDOT wanted to build a roundabout at North King and Hatfield streets in Northampton, many meetings were held and voluminous testimony was taken, he said.

Opposition grew after digging for the project in the fall of 2019 revealed artifacts estimated to be at least 8,000 years old, on Skibiski’s land. Skibiski filed a lawsuit, still pending, claiming the state started the dig before it formally took his land. A petition seeking to stop the project was also signed by 55,000 people.

“The state finally had to listen,” Skibiski said, and it canceled the project in May 2021.

Throughout, he said, his experience has been one of an agency that pays no attention to public comments and fails to communicate with or respond to those who are affected by its actions.

“Information is not getting out,” Skibiski said. “DOT is not being open with the public.”

DiZoglio said she would make inquiries and follow up on Skibiski’s concerns.

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