State budget is a lot more than just a spending plan
197 outside sections set policy on everything from child marriage to prison commissary prices
FRAIDY REISS, who leads the New Jersey-based advocacy group Unchained At Last, has been fighting to end child marriage in Massachusetts for six years, lobbying lawmakers and testifying at hearings.
Supporters created a coalition of 50 organizations opposed to child marriage, and there was no vocal opposition. The first legislative session Reiss was told it was too new of an issue. The second legislative session, the Senate passed the bill unanimously, then COVID hit. This year, as the Judiciary Committee stalled on releasing the bill, House Minority Leader Brad Jones introduced a budget amendment to ban child marriage, which passed the House unanimously.
On Monday, the Legislature prohibited marriage for minors under age 18 as part of the final state budget bill that emerged from a conference committee Sunday. If Gov. Charlie Baker signs the provision, Massachusetts would become the seventh US state to ban child marriage.
Rep. Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat who has been a prime sponsor of the measure for years, spoke passionately on the House floor. “Early marriage undermines a child’s health, education, and future, and future economic opportunities,” she said.
Reiss’s reaction to the bill’s passage was a joyous scream. But even she acknowledged the odd path the ban is taking to become law. “Ideally, policy shouldn’t be done in the budget,” Reiss said. “But when you need to end a human rights abuse, you use whatever means are available, and this was the means available.”
In theory, the budget is the vehicle used to fund state government. In practice, the state budget is frequently used as a catch-all policy vehicle, a way to use a bill that is guaranteed to pass to further policies that for whatever reason have not passed as standalone legislation. This year is no different, with policies included in the fiscal 2023 budget that range from extending universal free school meals to all students regardless of income to requiring sheriffs and corrections officials to provide free calls to incarcerated people. Lawmakers sent the bill to Baker on Monday.
Some of the provisions have a clear nexus to state spending. But other “outside sections,” as the policies are called, have little connection to the budget itself.
For example, advocates for certain segments of the Asian community have had a long-running disagreement over what types of demographic information should be collected when a form asks about ethnicity. The concern is that the label Asian-American is overly broad and does not distinguish between distinct ethnic groups.
An outside section of the budget states that any government agency that collects demographic race and ethnicity data must have separate tabulations for a huge number of subpopulations, including Asian groups (like Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, etc.), Pacific Islander groups (Native Hawaiian, Guamanian, Samoan, etc.), Black groups (African American, Jamaican, Haitian, etc.), Latino groups (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban), and Whites (German, Irish, English, and so on).
Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said he does not think there is more policy in this year’s budget than usual. “It’s about traditional,” he said. “Anybody who knows me knows that I resist as much as possible making policy changes in the budget vehicles, but it happens every year.” Rodrigues added that often, outside policy sections are necessary to implement spending provisions.
Some policy sections do fit into that category. For example, an outside section creates a scholarship fund to attract more public school teachers from underrepresented populations, and the budget capitalizes the fund.
For example, the House increased funding for early education and also changed how the money is paid by basing payments on enrollment rather than attendance. The budget in this case provided a way to quickly implement recommendations from an early education commission report that came out in March. “From the House side, there was some more pieces that were financially impactful that had a little more policy in them than maybe traditionally – like no-cost calls [for inmates] and some of the early education pieces,” Michlewitz said.
But many outside sections go beyond that.
The budget bill would set up a new board to ensure that any veteran who received a dishonorable discharge from the US military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity under the former Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy will receive state-based veteran benefits. The policy banned openly gay and lesbian military members from serving for 17 years, beginning in 1994.
Advocates for the poor have for years been urging government to set up a common application people can use to apply for a range of welfare benefits, rather than having to apply for each benefit individually. The state has made some progress, but the budget would require the administration to create a common application someone could use to simultaneously apply for MassHealth, food assistance, cash assistance, veterans benefits, childcare subsidies, housing subsidies, fuel assistance, and “other needs-based health care, nutrition and shelter benefits.”
The bill sets up a new program under which people with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities can participate in public college campus activities as non-matriculated students – taking undergraduate academic courses or participating in internships, work-based trainings, or extracurricular activities, even if they did not graduate high school or take a college entrance exam.
The bill requires anyone seeking to open a quarry apply to a state geologist for permission, provide information about quarry operations, test for pyrite or pyrrhotite, and conform with state standards for pyrrhotite. This appears to be a response to the problem in parts of Massachusetts where homes’ foundations were contaminated with pyrrhotite, which crumbles over time.
State officials would be required to examine data and publish a report related to the prescribing and treatment history, including court-ordered treatment or treatment within the criminal legal system, of Massachusetts residents who suffered fatal opioid overdoses between 2019 and 2021.
Prisons and jails would be barred from charging more than 3 percent over the purchase cost for commissary items.
The bill would require anyone seeking to open a clinical laboratory independent of a hospital or licensed health clinic to obtain a license.
The Executive Office of Health and Human Services would be tasked with reviewing data and issuing a report to ensure health care services are adequate to meet the needs of people with sickle cell disease.
Amid a debate about whether to let the state construct additional prison facilities, the Legislature would require the Department of Correction and county sheriffs to provide an annual, public report of their housing inventory, capacity, number of inmates held there, and amounts of out-of-cell time offered to incarcerated people.
There are also numerous commissions created to study different issues. A commission would look at the creation of a Middlesex County “restoration center,” where people suffering from mental health problems or substance use disorders who end up in court can be diverted and be taken out of lockups into the center.UMass Amherst would examine the possibility of constructing a new Massachusetts school of health sciences education and a center for health care workforce innovation at the Mount Ida campus in Newton.
There would be commissions to study oral health, chronic kidney disease, and the history of state institutions for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.