The Budgets Fine Print

In layman’s terms, they’re addenda to the state’s annual budget. In Beacon Hill lingo, they’re called “outside sections,” sections of the budget law outside the actual appropriations. But in State House political culture, they’re lawmaking on the sly.

The easiest way to put proposals into law is to slip it into the budget. That way you avoid such messiness as public hearings, committee wrangling, and media scrutiny. After all, who’s going to vote against a 700-page, $20-billion budget because of section (1) subsection (b) of Section 317?

The long-awaited Fiscal Year 2000 budget contains 389 outside sections. That’s fewer than last year’s 442, but more than 1998’s 310, and significantly more than recommended by Gov. Paul Cellucci (120) or even the House Ways and Means Committee (147).

A few of these stipulations are well known. The funding mechanism, governing statute, and labor relations procedures for the MBTA are overhauled in a 41-page outside section that supersedes all previous MBTA-related laws on the books. Outside sections in this year’s budget also cut the state’s income tax rate to 5.75 percent from 5.95 percent and create a trust fund for 70 percent of money the state will receive from the so-called national tobacco settlement.

Small actions litter the outside sections, too: a bandstand on Revere Beach Boulevard is named for the late Revere mayor and long-time state representative William Reinstein; the New Chardon Street Courthouse shall officially become the Sen. Edward Brooke Courthouse. The learner’s permit law has been changed so that the student driver can take the wheel only if someone who has been a licensed driver for two years–not one, as in current law–is a passenger. And sales of gun safes and trigger locks are now exempt from the sales tax, an incentive for gun owners to use these protective devices. Some provisions the House and Senate couldn’t settle their differences over must wait for another day, including the number of hospitals in the state that will be allowed to perform open-heart surgery (and financially lucrative therapeutic cardiac catheterizations). But a number of acorns did get squirreled away in the back pages of this year’s budget:

-A Head Injury Services Trust Fund (approved over the governor’s veto) to pay for non-residential rehabilitative services, funded by a $25 surcharge on speeding tickets and a $125 surcharge on citations for driving while intoxicated and driving so as to endanger.

-A Board of Registration of Dietitians and Nutritionists, functioning under the aegis of the Board of Registration in Medicine–a consumer-protection measure that simultaneously boosts the professional status of experts on eating.

-Further dismantling of county government. Essex becomes the latest county whose apparat gets thrown on the dustbin of history, joining Hampshire, Berkshire, Franklin, Middlesex, Hampden, and Worcester (though Franklin and Hampshire still maintain a “council of governments,” funded by assessment revenues). This year’s budget also disbands Suffolk County’s Registry of Deeds, but does so in a curious manner: shifting the employees–and the costs–to the Secretary of State’s office, but the revenue collected (for title searches, etc.) to the City of Boston.

-Allowing cities and towns, at their option, to give property-tax breaks to homeowners age 60 and older who volunteer for municipal service.

-Changing the domestic abuse laws to withhold the address and phone number, former address, and employer’s address and phone number of a plaintiff in a domestic abuse case from the accused batterer. The same information is now also specifically exempt from the state’s Public Records Law, protecting the victim’s privacy.

-Requiring the Department of Transitional Assistance to collect demographic information on individuals and families who stay in homeless shelters.

-Requiring the Department of Revenue and Department of Education to step up their audits of city and town spending of state education-reform money to a minimum of 24 audits this year.

Meet the Author
Outside sections of this year’s budget also mandate the usual plethora of special-commissions studies of more than two dozen issues, including health care costs borne by the state associated with alcohol abuse (trolling for another tobacco-like lawsuit?), the future of the backlogged school building assistance program, whether the oversight duties of the Department of Telecommunications and Energy (formerly the Department of Public Utilities) should be transferred to the Attorney General’s office, and whether prisoners should be charged for room and board.

If history is any guide, few of these studies will generate legislative debate or action. Most will end up jammed into bookcases and forgotten–if they are completed at all. But not to worry: They can always be ordered up again. All it takes is an outside section in next year’s budget.