Senate trying to limit policy proposals in budget

Shift seen as part of effort to work through joint committees

THIS YEAR THE annual spending bill may be just that. While the budget process is only about halfway through, the leadership of both legislative branches appears determined to focus on appropriations and to limit the amount of policy provisions included in the fiscal 2020 budget.

“We talked a lot about the fact that we’re trying to limit consideration of any outside sections or policy in the budget,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said right after the multi-day Senate budget debate began on Tuesday. “That’s what we have committees for.”

That would be a change for the Senate. When Stan Rosenberg was president of the Senate and Karen Spilka was Senate Ways and Means chairwoman, the Senate loaded up the annual budget bill with policy priorities. In the budgets covering fiscal 2016 through fiscal 2019, the years Spilka was Ways and Means chair, the Senate budget had more than double the amount of outside policy sections as the House budgets on average, and the Senate budgets were on average about 145 pages longer than the House budgets.

Spilka is now president of the Senate, and members of her leadership team said the squeeze on policy riders in the budget may mark a shift in House-Senate relations, with Spilka betting that the new approach will lead to the House and Senate working cooperatively to set policy through the committee process of passing bills.

In past sessions, particularly under Rosenberg, there was frustration with the committee approach because House members outnumbered Senate members on the joint committees and often used their superior numbers to shape bills on their way to the floor or bottle them up. That led to pushing policy matters in the budget, a bill that has to pass. But senators had limited success in convincing the House to go along with those policy proposals.

Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester, who served as president for several months between Rosenberg and Spilka, acknowledged that there was “probably” more policy in prior years’ budgets.

“That’s because they’ve always had the feeling they can’t do it any other way,” Chandler said of her colleagues.

Chandler said senators are now on board with Rodrigues’s approach. As debate got underway Tuesday, several senators announced they would withdraw amendments proposing substantive policy changes, according to the State House News Service session summary.

“I think everybody’s aware of it and comfortable,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a chance to do the policy that we’re talking about.”

The House budget, which passed nearly unanimously in April, was devoid of many major policy proposals.

“We didn’t want to make too many waves in terms of what we were trying to do and accomplish,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said in an appearance on The Scrum podcast. Like Rodrigues, this is Michlewitz’s first budget as Ways and Means chairman.

After both the House and Senate pass their versions of the annual spending bill, a select group of six lawmakers (three from each branch) convenes in private to negotiate a compromise bill. During those conference committee deliberations, it is easier to negotiate with fewer policy asks, according to Senate President Pro Tem William Brownsberger.

“It’s less baggage,” Brownsberger said. “Sometimes people think it’s good to bring in things so you can just give them up. It doesn’t work that way. Because every single thing you do, everything you put into a bill is something that you’re going to have to talk about in that conference process. And there’s only so much time in that conference process, so if you’re wasting time talking about things that you’re planning to give up, then you’re wasting time.”

Though it provides fewer opportunities for public input than the normal committee process, policymaking through the budget has had some success in recent years and it has also courted controversy. The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board was created in the fiscal 2016 budget, which also included a controversial provision granting the T more freedom to outsource work, which was not popular with organized labor.

This year’s budget is the first in the two-year legislative session, and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem said the dynamic could shift next May when she and other senators might be more anxious about seeing their proposals become law.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“I know I have some bills that I didn’t add as policy pieces. I’d like to. And maybe next year when I’m running out of time, it might be different,” Creem said. “The House budget didn’t have a lot of policy. It’s good in that we don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to negotiate based on our policies and their policies.”