House Budget Week Has Lost Much of Its Luster
HOUSE LAWMAKERS DEMONSTRATED this week how easy it can be to spend a cool $42 billion and change.
Representatives from Fall River to Attleboro shivered their way through four days of “debate” where the only thing more challenging than staying warm was finding ways to occupy the time.
“Other than the temperature, it’s going smoothly. It’s like a polar vortex in there,” reported Lenox Democratic William “Smitty” Pignatelli, commenting on the A/C chilled chamber that had lawmakers huddling under blankets as they munched their way through bags of Swedish fish.
It’s safe to say the luster of House “budget week” is gone. And it has been for a few years. The deliberations are a showcase of Republicans and Democrats agreeing, and keeping any disagreements private.
The days of hallways crowded with lobbyists, late nights and contentious policy debates seem to be a thing of the past. Now only a smattering of lobbyists linger outside the House chamber (emails and texts will suffice), the latest lawmakers stayed any night this week was 9:39 p.m. and the idea of opposition seems almost quaint.
A far cry from the “Animal House” days of yore.
But members, by and large, seemed content to let the process unfold. And the product remains the same -- a spending plan for the coming fiscal year that now approaches $42.8 billion after lawmakers padded the Ways and Means budget with about $71 million over four days.
Even the Republicans had little to say, spending much of the week counting their chits, perhaps the bounty paid for their silence. Minority Leader Brad Jones stepped to the mic just once over four days to explain his proposal to expand a land conservation tax credit, which had the backing of Democrats and passed unanimously.
THE POLITICAL SNIPING, instead, took place between prominent Democrats like Attorney General Maura Healey and Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling.
Lelling drew ire when he convinced a federal grand jury to indict Newton District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph and a court officer on obstruction of justice charges. The charges stem from their alleged efforts to help an undocumented immigrant evade immigration authorities by allowing the defendant to slip out of their courthouse.
Lelling said he knew he was kicking a hornets’ nest by going after a judge, but felt he needed to show that not even someone in a black robe is above the law. But Healey, among others, called it a “radical and politically motivated attack” for something that she said could have been handled by Commission on Judicial Conduct or the Trial Court itself.
WHILE THIS CASE bears watching, the House budget debate did not.
As has become custom, new spending was packed on through large, earmark-filled consolidated amendments put together by the Ways and Means Committee and new chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who spent hours meeting privately with members in the infamous Room 348, otherwise known as the Members’ Lounge, to discuss priorities.
While any member can choose to have their amendment debated individually, only Rep. Russell Holmes did. The Mattapan Democrat made a plea for legislative pay reform that he said would bring equity to the system and take some stipend-related power away from the speaker.
Needless to say, it failed.
Instead, there was money added to help with the 2020 Census count and to support addiction treatment and recovery. More money was set aside for regional transit authorities and to support nursing homes, an industry hit yet again with bad news when Skyline Healthcare announced it was surrendering five more licenses for facilities on the South Coast.
And the policy debates, such as they were, were limited to brief explanations of what had been decided.
ONE OF THE BIGGER behind the scenes debates of the week centered around Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to allow MassHealth to directly negotiate with drug manufacturers over the price of some of the costlier drugs on the market.
The Ways and Means Committee had largely endorsed the Baker plan, but after a strong lobbying campaign led by former House lawmaker Bob Coughlin and the Biotechnology Council, House leaders decided to pull back on some of the public disclosure and shaming elements that were considered by advocates to be the real teeth behind the effort.
The House’s new plan is to allow for direct negotiations, but without the same threat of drug makers being forced to publicly answer questions or disclose pricing information and financials. And if they fail to comply with requests, there’s no mechanism to invite the attorney general to get involved.
Majority Leader Ronald Mariano and Health Care Financing Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Benson explained that they were trying to strike a balance between cost control and not hurting a major employer group that has led to economic growth in areas like Kendall Square.
THE HOUSE ALSO took a stab at opening up a new market in Massachusetts for the processing of shell-on lobster parts, and tweaked the pricing requirements on bids for the next round of offshore wind contracts. The wind price reforms were an attempt by Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad and others to guarantee competition after the prices in the first round came in far lower than expected.
House Speaker ROBERT DELEO declared the final product -- which was Michlewitz’s first as Ways and Means chairman -- an “excellent piece of work.” Overall, it increases state spending by about 3 percent over last year, including over $200 million in new funding for public schools.
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the building, the Senate packed its work into one day on Thursday when it finished the job of overriding Baker’s veto of a bill to repeal a cap on family welfare benefits.
The Senate also passed a bill to allow people to choose a nonbinary gender designation of “X” on driver’s licenses and birth certificates, and a road safety bill requiring bicycle tailights, safety mirrors on state-owned trucks and more.
ON THE CAMPAIGN trail, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton announced on “Good Morning America” on Monday that he would run for president, one of 20 Democrats seeking the 2020 nomination after former Vice President Joe Biden joined him this week.
Moulton’s team says that the congressman plans to run for re-election to the House if his long-shot bid for the nomination doesn’t pan out, but that hasn’t stopped people from openly considering a run for his seat.
The list, according to the Boston Globe, includes former Rep. John Tierney, who was knocked out of Congress by Moulton and may be considering a comeback.
THE TRANSPORTATION FUNDING debate also got a shot in the arm this week from a poll released by MassINC Polling Group that showed widespread frustration with the state of road congestion and public transit reliability.
Sixty-six percent of voters said action was “urgently needed” to improve the state’s transportation system, and 80 percent said they support the generic supposition that the state should raise new money to fix the problem.
The question is who should pay?
Baker, touting his own plans to invest $8 billion over the next five years in public transit and a comparable figure into road and bridge work, said additional taxes aren’t needed, while Senate President Karen Spilka casually touched what has been a third rail in transportation politics for years ñ the idea of more toll roads.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The process was nothing to see, but from it a budget was born.
The Sunday Notebook was compiled by State House News Service reporter Matt Murphy.