Budget Conferee on Beacon Hill: No Knuckleheads or Pests Need Apply

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Westfield’s Mike Knapik, one of the longest serving members of the Massachusetts Senate, made news earlier this week when he announced he was resigning to take an administrative position at his local university, Westfield State.

The news accounts made much of the fact that Knapik’s resignation is a blow to an already weak Massachusetts Republican Party.  When Knapik leaves the State House on Friday, August 9, his last day on the job, there will be only three Republicans left in the 40-member Senate.

In any deliberative body where you control just 7.5% of the votes, as will be the case for Republicans in the Senate, post-Knapik, you are the opposite of a force to be reckoned with.  The best you can hope is for spoiler or swing-vote status on a closely decided issue.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, closely decided issues come along in the Senate as often as charming TSA agents at the airport.

I was surprised that none of the news stories noted that Knapik has exerted an outsized influence on the annual state budget process for many years now by consistently winning appointment to the House-Senate budget conference committee.

The budget conference committee is formed in June to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.  Two seats on the six- member committee are taken by the chairs of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means. The House Speaker, Senate President, House Minority Leader and Senate Minority Leader each appoint one member. The majority party, which for decades in Massachusetts has been the Democratic, thus controls four seats, the Republican Party two.

On its face, it would seem that Republican conferees are powerless to affect the final shape of the budget because they can always be out-voted by the Dems.  In the snug confines of the budget conference committee, however, personalities and relationships can often trump partisan political tendencies.  This is why minority party leaders always appoint likeable and trustworthy members to the committee: during the many long days the committee is in session, good-guy Republicans will have a better chance of persuading their rivals to keep something in the budget than sticklers and sourpusses would. 

If the people across the table consider you a friend, you can have an impact.  Of course, there are times when friendship has less to do with the outcome than good, old-fashioned horse-trading.

Think about it.  Any subset of conferees may form a mutually beneficial alliance.  Senate Conferee A can make a deal with House Conferee B to vote for A’s most coveted in-district project in return for a commitment to back B’s darling proposal.

At trading time, it doesn’t matter much if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.  If you’re sitting in one of the few seats at the table when an issue is decided, you’ve got leverage.  Period.

Years ago, I was at a state Democratic Party event at the Park Plaza Hotel as the cocktail hour was ending and people were moving to their seats in the second-floor ballroom.  I happened to be in a knot of people that included Tom Finneran, who had recently left the House Speakership to become head of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

A former Republican senator turned lobbyist came up to shake Finneran’s hand.  This was a man who’d often served on the budget conference committee when Finneran was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Mr. Speaker!  Great to see you, as usual!” said the former senator.

The former speaker returned the greeting in kind.

After a few seconds, the former senator turned to leave.  I don’t think he was staying for the dinner, which made sense given the man’s Republican bona fides.

As the former senator walked away, Finneran smiled broadly and shook his head.

“That guy, he was tough,” Finneran said. “He always held out for something.  You knew you were going to have to give him something.”

At first I didn’t know what he was talking about.  Then the light bulb went on: of course, the budget conference committee!   

It was a gesture of respect for the former senator’s political skills.  I could detect no edge of hard feeling between Finneran and him.

Mike Knapik will soon begin work as the new Executive Director of University Advancement at Westfield State.  He will be reporting to the president of the university, Evan Dobelle, who served as mayor of Pittsfield, MA in his younger days and as U.S. Chief of Protocol in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

“I know of no other public figure in Massachusetts more widely regarded for his bi-partisanship and resolute integrity” than Senator Knapik, Dobelle told the media on Monday. 

“I was not involved in this selection process until the search committee presented him as a finalist,” Dobelle added, “and his interview with them and me was extraordinary.  His passion for Westfield State and his personal reputation and leadership will bring the (Westfield State) Foundation, as we begin our 175th anniversary celebration, to never-before-seen success.”

Senate President Therese Murray, one of the state’s staunchest Democrats, released the following statement:

“Senator Knapik is a proven leader who proactively works across the aisle to bring positive change for the Commonwealth.  He holds an unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility and the health of our economy, and he has always worked with the best interests of his constituents in mind.  I enjoyed working with him during our time together in the Senate and I wish him the best of luck in his new position at Westfield State.”

Knapik is 50 years old and has been in the legislature since 1991, when he was elected to the House; four years later, he entered the Senate.  No doubt, he’s made the 200-mile round trip from Westfield to Boston thousands of times.  From now on, his car will barely be warm by the time he gets to the office.  He’ll have more of a life for himself at Westfield State…and more of a salary: $110,000 a year in the new job versus $83,000 in the old.

Mike Knapik is the real deal.  He deserves his good luck.

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