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State Budget Process Is Cleaner, Faster But Is It Better?

Apr 30, 2017 12:43AM ● By Bill Gilman
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — House “budget week” – once as sure a rite of spring as Patriots Day and the marathon – became something altogether different this year, a slow evolution from a colorful and messy, sugar- and caffeine-fueled test of wills and endurance into something far more antiseptic.

Recap and analysis of the week in state governmentAnd yet, the House achieved a notable milestone this week that had nothing to do with its pace-setting debate. 

For the first time in the state’s history, a branch of the Legislature approved an annual budget north of $40 billion in spending, and with near unanimity to boot. The fact that it took just two days to accomplish such a feat only makes it more remarkable.
Rep. Brian Dempsey, the Rooseveltian wizard of Room 348 who oversees the behind-the-scenes blending that allowed the House to dispatch 1,210 amendments in nine bulk amendments and a scattering of individual votes, shepherded his seventh budget to completion. 

Seldom seen or heard, the Ways and Means chairman’s style has become one that emphasizes ruthless efficiency.

Budgets, politicians like to say, are value statements and a series of choices about where to allocate finite resources to achieve a goal, or many. But they’re also about basic math - making sure the revenue coming in matches the spending going out, and using whatever tricks of the trade are necessary to make that math work.

From the time the budget was introduced on Monday to the moment when the applause for Speaker Robert DeLeo and Dempsey subsided and the House called it quits on Tuesday evening, representatives spent a total of 1,283 minutes in session.

That averages out to a little more than a minute spent on each of the 1,210 amendments filed, with tax dollars being appropriated at a rate of $31.5 million per minute. And all of that was done while taking just 30 recorded roll call votes, some of which were simply to take attendance.

Before the clock struck midnight Tuesday, the aroma of celebratory cigars wafted through the smoke-free halls of the State House marking the conclusion to another year’s budget week - which is slowly losing its right to that designation.

There are lots of reasons why House leaders ran out of reasons to try to extend debate for optics' sake into Wednesday, when the process has ended the past five years. As Dempsey has honed his amendment-crunching process, members of both parties have also seemed to lose their lust for the fight.

Liberal Somerville Democrat Rep. Denise Provost sparked a min-debate over freezing the income tax rate at 5.1 percent, rather than allow it to possibly tick down in January, but withdrew her amendment rather than spot her colleagues by forcing a recorded vote that might become election fodder in 2018.
 On the other side of the aisle, Rep. James Lyons rolled out a multi-pronged plan to reform MassHealth, a program whose size and growth is making many other investments impossible. Lyons couldn’t even get his GOP compatriots to help him force a roll call on a measure that included a control board for MassHealth. 

"We really need to understand what we're voting on, and we don't," Lyons lamented, a issue bemoaned from time to time by members of both parties.

There’s also the issue of money. After increasing local aid and paying for MassHealth, pensions and debt, there was precious little discretionary money to spend. Just north of $75 million was added to the bottom line during deliberations, most of it in the form of local earmarks.  Those funding carvouts can be a reward to the rank-and-file for fealty, if they can make it past the governor's veto pen and somehow find their way into a constrained capital budget.

There were of course a few flareups, and its little surprise that GOP Rep. Shaunna O’Connell was at the center of one. O’Connell proposed to require public housing applicants to submit Social Security numbers to prevent those in the country legally from being given preference over citizens and those with legal status.

Before it was defeated, Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge called it a "mean-spirited" proposal that would "pile on the vulnerability and the hardship many immigrants already face." And that’s what passed as an immigration debate this year.
In the end, only Lyons would vote no on the budget.

The House went second in the annual budget dance, and used lower caseload projections at MassHealth than those used by Baker to put together his budget.  On paper at least, that freed up some money to spend on local aid, early educator salaries and more.

Now it’s the Senate’s turn. 

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg kept tight-lipped when asked this week if he had any plans to reach for additional revenue through a new tax or two. He also said his Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Sen. Jamie Welch were still working through options to deal with MassHealth that may not be just a rubber stamp of the governor’s employer assessment.

So while the House waits to see how sticky negotiations will become between their colleagues down the hall, the big question for DeLeo and his team becomes what’s next?

Rep. Byron Rushing, a senior member of the speaker’s leadership team, knows what he’d like to see happen, but he’s also not in a huge rush.

Rushing led a press conference with other members of the Black and Latino Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and others to implore his colleagues to get on board with the idea of comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The governor’s bill, which is focused on reducing recidivism and has been termed by DeLeo a “great start,” is fine and well, the legislators said, but the odds are they’re only going to get one bite at this apple in the next few years. 

And if that’s the political reality, the time is ripe to tackle more than just the re-entry system, but also sentencing reform, bail reform, inmate mental health and substance abuse treatment and more. 

Rushing, ever the optimist, said it’s too early for him to be concerned by signals from DeLeo that the speaker may be eyeing quick and clean passage of Baker’s bill, and taking more time with the other subjects. He’s playing the long game: “If this happens on the last day of the session, it's just like it happening on the first day of the session. Don't worry about the process. Worry about the end.” 

Rosenberg can be counted among those who recognize an appetite, at least in the Senate, to go further than the governor has proposed, and he said he will be talking with DeLeo soon about a process to get something done. 
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