Seemingly out of the far reaches of left field, the New England Historical and Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in the Back Bay were ambushed last week with a little-known proposal in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget that would severely limit vital records – a keystone for those doing genealogical and academic research.
Ryan Woods, executive vice president of NEHGS, said this week that the new restrictions came within the ‘outside sections’ of the governor’s Fiscal Year 2021 State Budget request – a section of the budget buried deep and rarely discussed or seen by the general public. The proposal, which would be approved with the Budget if not removed beforehand, restricts access to birth and marriage records for 90 years, and restricts access to death records for 50 years. There are currently no restrictions on such public records – known as vital statistics.
It was a complete surprise to the organization and Woods.
“Unequivocally it was a surprise to us,” he said. “There had not been any public discussion about this until it appeared in the budget. Our understand is the proposal came from the Department of Public Health, which oversees the Commonwealth’s Vital Records and Statistics…We were surprised to see this because Massachusetts is one of about a dozen states that does not have any significant restrictions on vital records. To effectively cut off access to those for what would be a lifetime was absolutely a significant shift in what the Commonwealth has allowed going back to the 1640s.”
Outside Sections in the budget are often reserved for loose ends and legislation that some might want to get through without the normal process. Two years ago, creation of the new 4 a.m. extended liquor licenses for casinos was done in an outside section of the governor’s budget – a measure that passed with the final budget.
Woods said such a change in access to records would impact public health researchers, journalists, family researchers, and academia significantly. He said it’s a change that should be debated in traditional fashion.
“For our industry and the First Amendment rights and Public Health researchers, we think this is a significant change in state law that was buried pretty deep in the Budget,” he said. “We certainly understand the desire to have privacy protections, but don’t think that debate belongs in a Budget document that only gets and up or down vote.”
He added that research indicates access to vital statistics doesn’t increase identity theft or privacy invasions, and he also added that most records are already online and available on the private market for a fee.
He said they will continue to advocate with the State Legislature to prevent this measure from becoming law, and hope that it will be removed during the ongoing State Budget debate.
It is estimated that family history and genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America, and 20 million Americans participate in some sort of family research. Most of those searches start with such vital records.