Budgeting efficiency

Spending plan breezes with little debate, dissent

For bloodless efficiency, you couldn’t beat the House deliberations over a $32 billion budget, which were wrapped up Wednesday night after just three days of debate, an antiseptic process that occurred largely behind closed doors.  The biggest excitement came when a group of senior citizen activists decided they’d had enough and began chanting from the House gallery to protest the looming MBTA fare hikes.   Maybe their indecorous outburst came from being the only ones old enough to remember a time when the Legislature actually debated the budget out in open.

When it comes to the state budget, the most important single piece of the legislation dealt with each year, the idea of robust public debate has become a relic of the past.  Years ago, the budget deliberations could extend for days or even weeks, with every amendment debated and voted on the House floor. These days, members can file proposed amendments to the spending plan put out by the House Ways and Means Committee, but those amendments are dealt with out of public view in Room 348 – a room off the private House lobby that now serves as lawmakers’ own Harry Potter-like chamber of secrets. 

Proposed changes to the budget are discussed there, with those that find favor with leadership then bundled by subject area into “consolidated amendments,” which are then rubber-stamped on the House floor.  

The idea of not wanting to air the dirty laundry in public may be a natural organizational impulse.  But legislators are part of a deliberative body whose very purpose, one might say, is to air dirty laundry in public – to engage in a freewheeling public exchange of views on the important issues of the day.  As CommonWealth’s Gabrielle Gurley reports in the spring issue, less and less of that seems to take place on Beacon Hill. 

RedMassGroup’s Rob Eno has dubbed the House budget caucus room the place “where liberty goes to die,” and there certainly is some truth in that.

House leaders have protested the characterization, saying any member is free to introduce onto the House floor for individual consideration an amendment that doesn’t get the green light in the private consolidated amendment process.  But any amendment brought for debate in that manner would effectively be accompanied by a big banner announcing that House leaders do not support this measure.  That is not helpful billing in a chamber that Democrats overwhelmingly dominate, which has become increasingly hostile to dissent and debate.

Some House supporters of an expanded bottle deposit law, for example, filed an amendment to have the measure – which has been stalled in the Legislature for years – approved as part of the budget.  However, it was not included in the consolidated amendment that considered various environmental proposals, and no one called for a vote on the measure on the House floor.  Janet Domenitz, executive director of the advocacy group MassPIRG, which is leading the charge on the bill, said Speaker Robert DeLeo made it clear that he didn’t want the expanded bottle deposit law proposal taken up as part of the budget, so her group did not push the budget amendment route.  “Why set yourself up to lose,” she said.  MassPIRG is pushing instead to have the measure released later this spring as a separate piece of legislation.  “We think we have the support to win if it comes out as a bill,” said Domenitz. 

That may have been a prudent political calculation – but it’s a calculation based on the reality of an increasingly warped power dynamic on Beacon Hill in which the House speaker controls almost everything.

Judy Meredith, a veteran human services lobbyist who has witnessed many budget debates on Beacon Hill, said it is certainly not the drawn-out, often raucous process of years ago. But she takes issue with the idea that the current approach has drained the process of all semblance of democracy.  Her first rule of lobbying:  “Elected and appointed officials make different decisions when watched by the affected constituency.”  

You could argue that it’s hard to watch them when they hash out major budget matters behind doors that the public is barred from entering.  But Meredith’s broader point is that lawmakers know who is paying attention to various issues, and they still tend to be responsive to those who make their voices heard, regardless of how or where their deliberations take place. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

On Wednesday afternoon, a gaggle of advocates and lobbyists stood outside the House chamber, held back by the velvet rope as lawmakers scurried past to Room 348, where the next batch of amendments was to be considered.  Longtime activist Lew Finfer was among them, and he called out to Brockton state Rep. Michael Brady, who was sponsoring an amendment to restore funding for anti-gang violence programs. Finfer led a coalition of community groups across the state that pushed for the funding.  Finfer was also part of a coalition advocating funding for a youth jobs program, and several dozen teens later arrived at the State House to help push the case. Both measures got funding restored in the budget.

It’s hard to say whether the advocates’ presence is what made a difference, and the process seems far from ideal – and far from the sort of transparent system that is possible. But no matter what system is set up to divide the spoils of the state budget – the biggest policy pronouncement of the year – it does come down to the push and pull of those who are in the mix.

In that way, it still ends up being a bit like the old line about the lottery: You can’t win if you don’t play.