By Tom Benner

Democracy works best when people participate in their government; and people participate best when they can get the information they need to weigh in with opinions and evaluate the decisions made by those elected to represent us.

It’s that time of year now when Massachusetts is working on a new state budget. No piece of state legislation has a bigger impact on our everyday life -- from schools and roads, to public health, police and fire protection, and parks and recreation. The budget is how we as a Commonwealth express not just what we want to accomplish through government, but also how to pay for it.

State budget documents are not known for being “easy reads.” But understanding the Massachusetts state budget has just gotten easier, with a new online, interactive tool you can use to explore the state budget and see how and where money is allocated. The Budget Browser, found at, is part of our work at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center to help citizens of the Commonwealth better determine whether the state budget meets public needs and priorities.

The Budget Browser is a valuable resource. You can look up how much was spent over the past decade in categories large and small – from the Massachusetts public school system and all of the state’s colleges, to your local community college. You can see budget amounts for a given year or – to make meaningful comparisons – spending over several years, adjusted for inflation. Plus, you can create and download charts to print out and use for reports, media stories, or other documents.

The Browser tracks line items that have moved from one department to another through various government reorganizations and consolidations, with notes alongside the data alerting the user to these accounting issues.

Other features include a Tax Revenue page that tells how Massachusetts taxes have changed over time and
how they compare to other states. There’s a Resources and Glossary page that includes definitions of budget terms, a step-by-step description of how the state budget process works, and links to additional budget resources.

For too long, information needed to make informed choices about how state dollars are allocated was out of the reach of ordinary people. It used to be that in order to get spending levels for spending items such as health care or environmental programs over the years, for example, you'd have to thumb through a stack of thick documents, each containing hundreds of line items. Now, anyone with access to the Internet can find what they need with a few clicks of a computer mouse.

As citizens, we have an interest in what programs and services we want to preserve and what kind of communities we want to live in. With a crushing national recession increasing public needs, at the same time it reduces state resources to meet those needs, it is now more important than ever to understand how budget decisions being made by our elected leaders will affect services and our quality-of-life across the state.

Early feedback on the Budget Browser has been positive. Users across the state have called it a great new tool that helps the public to understand how state resources are being used and promotes informed and active citizenship. That’s certainly the idea.

It’s your state budget too. So get all the information about it at An open budget allows us all to understand the state we’re in.
Benner is communications director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Massachusetts Forum. 4/10