Legislators Are Not Fanatics When It Comes to Budget Discipline

Friday, April 22, 2011

You can say about "budget discipline" in the Massachusetts legislature what you can say about a lot of things in life: It's there until it isn't.

Legislative leaders naturally seek to impose discipline on the annual budget process. A budget could never get done if hard choices were not made and people at the top were not exerting themselves to make those choices stick.

One tenet of budget discipline holds that members of leadership cannot buck the leadership. For example, when Ways & Means puts out a budget, members of leadership are supposed to stand by and salute. They are not supposed to try to change it by putting their names on controversial budget amendments or taking contrary positions on policies that have a strong budgetary component.

That's how the system has always worked, at least in theory.

One must realize that leadership is a rather swollen concept in our legislature. The leadership team goes beyond the Speaker, Majority Leader, Speaker Pro Tem, Assistant Majority Leader and Second Assistant Majority Leader to include the chairs of some 30-plus committees and the chairs of the four separate divisions on the floor of the House.

With numbers and influence like that, leadership obviously has a big advantage in getting a budget through the 160-member House that looks a lot like the one issued by Ways & Means -- if budget discipline holds.

Expectation-wise, that's a lot of toes to get onto one line and keep there, though. And when budget discipline collides with political imperatives in a bunch of House districts, those toes can wind up elsewhere, as we learned again early this week.

No less than six committee chairs affixed their names to a budget amendment, backed forcefully by organized labor, which would undo a major feature of the budget released April 13 by Ways & Means.

The feature in question would allow cities and towns to make changes to employee health coverage without negotiating with employee unions, as they are now obliged to do. It was estimated that this one change, if enacted, would save cities and towns a total of at least $100 million in the next fiscal year.

South Boston's Marty Walsh, chair of the House Ethics Committee, took the lead in introducing an amendment that would replace that feature with a much weaker measure, one that would give municipal unions 45 days to negotiate proposed changes in health benefits, such as higher co-pays, and would turn the issue over to an arbitrator for a binding decision if the union and municipality were unable to come to a resolution.

In addition to the six committee chairs, more than 40 reps agreed to co-sponsor the Walsh amendment.

The AFL-CIO is pulling out all the stops to get the amendment through, and has let every House member know that it will watch, record and report on how they vote on it next week during the budget debate.

Given the firm, traditional emphasis on budget discipline, it was surprising that House leaders reacted to the Walsh insurrection so stoically as to appear more like philosophers than political potentates.

"Folks have differing opinions on how to get to reform," said Ways & Means Chair Brian Dempsey.

There could be a rip-roaring fight over this next week. Or Walsh & Co. could easily carry the day if most Democrats reckon it's better to frustrate their leaders than it is to tick off the AFL-CIO.

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