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Testimony to the Joint Committee on Public Health, 27 October 2009 on Beacon Hill
Joint Committee on Public Health Massachusetts General Court
October 27, 2009, Hearing
By Bernard Couming
Director of Civil Records
Massachusetts Genealogical Council
The current collection of bills before the Joint Committee on Public Health includes S-822, submitted by the genealogical community and the spokesman agency, the Massachusetts Genealogical Council (MGC). It is presented by Senator Thomas P. Kennedy of the 2nd Plymouth and Bristol District, and
This testimony is intended to support that bill and is submitted by Bernard Couming, the Director of Civil Records for that submitting Council.
S-822 represents the culmination of over ten years of negotiation with the past two registrars and includes mutually agreed effects on various elements of the existing statutes. It also provides for citizen oversight of the registry with the statutory inclusion of various stakeholder organizations. These organizations represent interests in the operation of the registry as well as continuation of public access to the records of the registry.
The first SECTION of S-822 would refine the language of section 4 in Massachusetts General Law, chapter 17 in order to spell out the make-up and operation of a special committee on vital records and statistics. Currently, although the structure has long been a part of that statute, those segments have never been implemented. The language does, however, spell out the purpose and intention to include genealogists and historians in the promulgation of regulations. It also addresses
the intent to ensure that no undue restrictions are placed on the access to the vital records by genealogists and historians.
Chapter 17 defines the Department of Public Health. Section 4 establishes the registry of vital records and statistics, complete with a committee of seven to oversee the promulgation of registry regulations. However, since the founding of the registry no such committee has been set up. Nevertheless, the intention in the law of the Commonwealth is clear. It requires public hearings
for any regulations and a majority vote to promulgate such regulations, and they "shall not unduly restrict access to said records by qualified genealogists and historians" (see full quote below).
See the attached FACT SHEET for S-822, which summarizes the remainder of the bill. Primarily it makes various "housekeeping" language corrections to chapter 46 (the statute defining RETURNS
AND REGISTRY OF BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS). It also spells out in further detail the structure and operation of the special committee and provides for automation of records and for reproduction. It also recommends a fee-based system for funding the automation of records.
SECTION 18 of the bill amends section 2 of chapter 111 THE STATUTE ON PUBLIC HEALTH to provide for the creation of an index of vital records by the registry.
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council challenges bill S-2064. It has been submitted by the legislative committee of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association (MTCA) and has been presented on their behalf by Representative Lida Harkins of the 13th Norfolk District and others.
It should be noted here that H-2064 only addresses chapter 46 and fails to take into account the ramifications in other statutes that need to be addressed for cohesive coordination between the various jurisdictions. One such fault in H-2064 is the establishment of a "czar" of vital records and statistics in the person of the registrar.
It does not provide input by the many stakeholders in the operation of the registry and its holdings. That also would create a conflict with established law under chapter 17 and chapter 30A (STATE ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURE). Even the MTCA sponsors of the bill may have overlooked their own self-interest in vesting all decision making power in the hands of the "czar".
There are several other bills before the committee, which are more draconian in that they call for the closing of access to these Public Records. The primary purpose of these proposed restrictions is based in a false sense of security against the crime of identity theft. Current law enforcement understanding of controlling ID theft crime spells out a list of 9 "sources of ID theft". NONE reference vital records of any kind. (See "The President's Identity Theft Task Force Report," October 2008, 60 pp.; at <http://www.idtheft.gov/reports/IDTReport2008.pdf>. And Utah Government Services, Identity Theft Reporting Information System, "What is Identity Theft?" <http://idtheft.utah.gov/education/educationpages/whatisidentitytheft_001.html>.) Access to vital records is NOT a significant tool for facilitating ID theft. Conversely, the transparency provided by our public record laws (for example, linking death records to the birth records) is the best bulwark against individuals and organizations that seek to undermine our system.
There is one other point that bears repeating. There are many public economic interests that would suffer if the current bills were to become a Trojan horse for restricting access to current vital records.
One certainly is the very significant tourist cash (hotels, meals, gifts) generated by genealogical, historical, and academic researchers coming with families or in groups from out of state and from out of country, specifically for access to the Massachusetts records historically available to them.
Another is the real estate and probate interest that is fully dependent on using these records to find people legally entitled to property. This "heir-search" industry (a subset of genealogy) has no assured jurisdiction for access to current vital records outside of the existing public records law. If the current system were to be undermined by access restrictions, the settling of estates would become even more protracted.
These are examples of "unintended consequences."
Finally, the Massachusetts Genealogical Council would like to be privy to the details of any merging of bills under the Vital Records rubric, and we beg the Joint Committee's indulgence for collaborating with us in this effort.
Bernard J. Couming
Civil Records Director, MGC