Media

HOUSE BUDGET BILL A CATCH-ALL FOR LAWMAKERS' PRIORITIES

Type:  Coverage 

By Andy Metzger and Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

 

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON - With the legislative pipeline clogged, Massachusetts House members are targeting the $38 billion state budget with the hopes of moving their priorities to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk this summer.

 

Lawmakers filed nearly 1,100 amendments to the House Ways and Means Committee's budget, which was released last Wednesday and will be debated beginning Monday, April 27.

Lawmakers have had few other opportunities to debate their priorities this year.

 

House and Senate leaders are hung up on a prolonged debate over internal rules and there have been few formal sessions. Nine of the 12 laws approved since the 2015-2016 session began in January establish special sick leave banks for state employees.

 

Major bills filed by Gov. Charlie Baker approved by the House to close the midyear budget gap, increase spending some areas of state budget and advance an early retirement program were largely unchanged during debate.

 

"It's been a slow start. There's no doubt about that," Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told the News Service. Smola said the budget is a good place to tweak state laws, and noted that the annual spending bill debate delves into policy every year, but he hopes it's limited.

 

"I would hope we would avoid anything extensive in terms of major, major policy changes," the Warren Republican said, adding, "It's always a vehicle for policy."

 

Legislation authorizing spending throughout state government will offer an opportunity to debate the entirety of state programs from reforming the MBTA, which plans to spend more than $2 billion in fiscal 2016, to earmarks for local projects worth tens-of-thousands of dollars apiece.

More than a dozen lawmakers filed amendments that reference the MBTA and nearly a dozen amendments reference the Department of Children and Families - the social work agency rocked by revelations in 2013 it had lost track of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver.

 

If past is prologue, most of the nearly 1,100 amendments filed before Friday's deadline will be discarded during backroom talks among House members, with those favored by top members of House Speaker Robert DeLeo's team being tacked onto the spending bill and becoming eligible for conference talks later in the budget cycle with the Senate.

 

Rep. Frank Smizik, a Brookline Democrat, wants to restore funding for the state climatologist, a position that has not yet been filled. Several Democrats backed an amendment that would increase to $22 million, up from $17 million, funding for legal assistance.

 

Lawmakers on the left and right have offered proposals to protect state revenues from being gobbled up by Olympics organizers. Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican, filed language that would prohibit any state spending or obligation for the potential 2024 Summer Games except transportation infrastructure. Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, proposed requiring market rates for use of state advertising space by the Olympics. According to a spokeswoman for the United Independent Party, Diehl's language "mirrors" the statewide ballot question proposed by former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk.

Rep. James Murphy, a Weymouth Democrat, filed an amendment to expand the nine-member Pension Reserves Investment Management Board to include representatives from the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Association of Contributory Retirement Systems.

 

Rep. Stephen Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, has proposed a budget rider that would allow breweries to refill growlers - large bottles that hold several servings of beer. A proposal by Minority Leader Brad Jones would alter state regulations banning bars from holding a happy hour, allowing for three consecutive happy days in the early part of a given week. Current Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission regulations permit discounted drinks only on a weekly basis.

 

Budgets also provide the stage for policy debates that transcend the spending and management of state tax dollars. Last year, the often raucous House budget debate quieted for debate over whether state lawmakers should step into a child custody dispute.

The leaders of last year's failed attempt to override a court's decision that granted the state custody of Justina Pelletier - Republican Reps. James Lyons and Marc Lombardo - have both filed amendments that are sure to spark heated debate if they are taken up on the floor.

Lombardo has proposed language that would bar local aid to cities and towns that fail to enforce immigration law, including those that declare themselves a "sanctuary city."

 

The ability to deliver local aid to their communities is a source of pride for lawmakers who often carry requests from local officials that rely on state aid to balance their budgets. Multiple municipalities have declared that they will not enforce immigration law within city lines, even though police fingerprint data is regularly routed through the federal government.

Lyons will attempt to learn more about the rigged hiring scheme undertaken at the probation department, which resulted in three convictions of former department officials.

Several Democratic state representatives were called during the trial as witnesses and prosecutors labeled Speaker Robert DeLeo as an unindicted co-conspirator to the patronage scheme. Lyons wants an independent commission to study the hiring scheme, which steered jobs to candidates favored by lawmakers.

 

Rep. Kay Khan, who is House chairwoman of the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, filed an amendment focused on improved training that she hopes will strengthen a 2014 law banning the shackling of pregnant inmates. 

The Newton Democrat told the News Service that even after the law passed pregnant women were shackled at the state's correctional facility for women in Framingham and at county facilities. 

 

"I think training is what's really important here," said Khan, who said a lack of seatbelts in transport vans is also an issue. 

 

Rather than take up budget amendments separately, the House Ways and Means Committee frequently bundles proposals into consolidated amendments, which in recent years have been replete with earmarks. Lawmakers can remove an amendment from a consolidated package and seek support for it on its own.

 

Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, is seeking $500,000 for an artificial turf field at King Philip High School. In a "technical amendment," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey has earmarked $125,000 for business groups and a boxing program in his area. Rep. Timothy Madden, a Nantucket Democrat, wants $50,000 to bring broadband to the island of Chappaquiddick off Martha's Vineyard.

 

Not all of the earmarks adopted by the House make it through the House-Senate conference committee, which negotiates the final version of the budget to be delivered to the governor. In years past, former Gov. Deval Patrick used his line-item veto powers to zero out certain earmarks.

 

Baker's budget proposal did not include earmarks, and an administration official said the governor's office will reserve individual judgements until the final budget has been sent to the governor.

 

Rep. Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat elected this year, touted his pursuit of earmarks in a press released headlined, "Adrian Madaro Hits the Ground Running, Files $300,000 in Budget Amendments for Eastie during His First Week in Office."

Madaro's amendments would fund police patrols of a beach that looks out at Logan Airport, the development of an opioid treatment program and money for a program bringing farm produce to low-income families.

 

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