April 30, 2017

On Beacon Hill: House lawmakers vote for expediency in budget process

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Freshman Rep. Brian Murray of Milford took a phone call outside the House Lobby early last week during the branch's first day of budget debate. Over the two-day affair, the shortest "budget week" in recent memory, most of the important debates and decisions occurred not on the House floor but in a nearby lounge where reps held meetings to decide which amendments were in and which were out.

Recap and analysis of the week in state, and federal, government
from State House News Service

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.

And yet, the House achieved a notable milestone last 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.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey.

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 many factors 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 mini-debate over freezing the income tax rate at 5.1 percent, rather than allow it to possibly tick down in January. But she withdrew her amendment rather than put her colleagues on the spot 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 sentiment echoed 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 carve-outs 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.

In the end, only Lyons voted 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.

— Matt Murphy

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