The state’s ‘secret’ budget

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By Al Normanalnorman_headshot

I have been a registered lobbyist on Beacon Hill for 30 years. I have only represented one client over all that time: Mass Home Care, a private, nonprofit network whose mission is to help elderly and disabled individuals live independently at home.

I am in the middle of my 30th state budget cycle. The House version of the budget has just been approved. The Senate is up next. There were 1,307 amendments filed in the House, which means that the average state representative filed eight budget amendments.

Mike Deehan has watched a lot of budgets, too. He is the statehouse reporter for WGBH in Boston. After the House budget was over, Deehan offered this Q&A in a WGBH column:

“Q: How do 160 members work through over a 1,000 amendment proposals to arrive at a final House budget in just three days?

A: In secret, mostly. The vast majority of the action takes place behind closed doors in secret budget negotiations between rank and file members and Speaker Robert DeLeo’s inner circle, led by Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey. The amendments are everything from funding modifications to straight up earmarks for lawmaker’s district priorities – and everyone’s got priorities. When the House leadership approves an amendment, it gets bundled into one of about a half dozen giant amendments that then get a stamp of approval from the full house.”

Another veteran journalist on Beacon Hill, Michael Norton, editor at the State House News Service, made a similar observation: “The budget was approved after two-plus days of deliberations marked by light and sporadic debates, with most of the decisions made in a House ante-room…”

Civil textbooks tell you that budgets are debated on the floor of the House and the Senate. I can remember sitting in the gallery of both chambers, watching lawmakers rise to debate an issue. But today, I can’t get into that “ante-room,” because neither the public nor the press is invited.

What happens with the budget these days is that dozens of items are “bundled” into a “consolidated amendment,” which with little advance notice, is presented in a small caucus room, and those lawmakers who show up, are the only ones who actually see and hear what their leadership recommends. There are no TV cameras, no taped sound. It’s basically a private moment when billions of public dollars get spent.

The process has always been controlled by a few engineers – even when lawmakers listened to arguments on the floor. Most lawmakers are rank-and-file passengers on the train, and “go along to get along” as the expression goes.

Most of the amendments I support go nowhere. Often I have to guess why a good issue gets a bad reception. This year, as in the past seven or eight, legislation that would have allowed spouses to be paid caregivers went down to defeat behind closed doors. Seventeen other states and the Veterans’ Administration already allow spouses as caregivers, because it saves their states money. But on Beacon Hill, the amendment did not make it into the Consolidated Amendment – again. At least three times the Senate has passed a similar bill – but until the two branches agree – nothing is sent to the governor to sign.

I can’t tell you why the spouse-as-caregiver amendment died. Because it’s a secret.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 978-502-3794.