Today's Unveiling of House Budget Will Be Neat, But the Budget Process Is Not for the Squeamish

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Massachusetts House of Representatives makes public its version of the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 state budget today when the House Ways and Means Committee, led for the first time by Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, brings into the light of day the huge budget document at the State House.

That introduction will be followd by a frenzied two-day period when House members will be allowed to file proposed amendments to the budget. The 160 representatives in the House will file all kinds of budget amendments, not all having to do with money.

In the main, however, reps will be trying to get funds for local projects -- renovations to a senior citizens center, a new sprinklered playing field at a school, new computerized traffic lights at a particularly nasty intersection, etc. There will probably also be some fairly substantive policy issues they'll try to address through budget amendments: increases in funding for tobacco cessation programs, for example, or money for juvenile mental health facilities, or more staffing for a court where the caseload has gone through the roof, etc.

By the deadline for filing budget amendments, which falls at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, April 15, somewhere between 700 and 900 separate amendments will have been filed, if past practice holds. A very high percentage of those amendments will also be dead on arrival, if past practice holds.

By tradition, the Speaker of the House and the Chair of Ways and Means have a reflexive dislike of budget amendments and try to discourage the amending of the Ways and Means version of the budget, even as they realize that members of the House have to seek amendments because of political imperatives they face in their districts. House Leadership (with a capital L) doesn't want the members monkeying too much with the budget, however, and when trying to keep things in line, it presses all members of Leadership, a category that includes all committee chairs, to toe the line.

Then there's the whole issue of state revenue. There is never enough of it, and this year there is even less, as Massachusetts continues to emerge groggily from the economic collapse of 2008. Any budget amendment requirng a substantial expenditure of state dollars beyond what the Ways and Means Committee has already proposed will encounter especially rough treatment this year, which is not the same as saying that no rep will score some funds through a successful amendment. A few always seem to pull it off, quietly.

Another reason the Leadership frowns on budget amendments: it does not want to see the annual budget debate turn into a free-for-all on the House floor, which is what would happen if they provided daylight to members seeking money for pet local projects via amendments. If one member somehow achieved the highly improbable, i.e., got an impromptu floor debate going on an amendment for a project in his district and got it approved by the body, the floodgates would presumably be opened for a bunch of other members who wanted to do the same. They'd be there for weeks, not days, fighting over the budget.

Legislators know they face long, if not impossible, odds this month when trying to bring something to life by amendment, but they try, anyway, because the attempt will look good for the folks back home or because they sincerely believe in the worth and importance of the initiative in question, and would prefer a noble failure to nothing. The biggest thing either branch of the legislature ever does is the state budget for the next fiscal year. Mostly happening behind closed doors, the process that produces that budget is not for the squeamish. To give Leadership its due, the budget would never get done if a cold-hearted discipline were not imposed on the body politic, with the chief disciplinarian being the chair of Ways and Means.

I remember the initial surprise that greeted the announcement by Speaker Sal DiMasi in 2005 that Bob DeLeo would exchange his chairmanship of the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading for the one at Ways and Means. (DeLeo's name had not exactly been on everyone's lips when State House observers were speculating on whom would be tapped by DiMasi to replace John Rogers in the center seat at Ways and Means.) Then it dawned on everyone: Of course, the new Speaker -- DiMasi had just replaced Tom Finneran -- named Bob DeLeo chair of Ways and Means! He was the only close friend of Sal's who could say NO to people. DeLeo had the added virtue of being able to say NO to his peers on budget requests without being unpleasant or heavy-handed, never mind haughty or spiteful. He could tell you where the dog has died, you might say, without giving the impression he was enjoying Fido's funeral. As Speaker, DeLeo will do everything he can to support the NO's that his rookie Ways and Means chair has already built into the budget coming out today.

No comments:

Post a Comment