Most decisions on $39.5 billion Massachusetts House budget made through back channels
BOSTON — State lawmakers, faced with constant pressure from constituents and interest groups, often talk about the difficult decisions they are forced to make when choosing how much money to allocate to programs and services, given that tax dollars are limited.
Over the first roughly 19 hours of deliberations on a nearly $40 billion fiscal 2017 budget bill, most of those decisions have been made through the back channels where hundreds of amendments have been dispensed with following private deliberations. The Massachusetts House has taken recorded votes on only four of the 1,307 amendments filed for consideration this year.
Democrats on Monday used roll call votes to turn back amendments dealing with treble damages for wage law violations, allocating surplus tax revenues to local aid, and restricting local aid in so-called sanctuary cities. On Tuesday, House Republicans and Democrats voted unanimously to study sick leave buyback policies in state government, with a report due on that topic by October.
The House took two more recorded votes on Monday, overwhelmingly voting to study reducing the sales tax to 5 percent and exempting cities and towns from paying the gas tax. In both cases, Republican sponsors of the amendments alleged that Democrats were ducking votes on tax policies.
On Tuesday, a further amendment to study an amendment aimed at prohibiting discrimination in disability insurance was adopted by a voice vote, after the House agreed not to take a recorded vote on it.
By late Tuesday, hundreds of amendments had been withdrawn, swept off the table or mashed into five "consolidated amendments," which have been approved unanimously.
The approach to dispensing with amendments, which has been largely accepted by Democrats and Republicans, keeps much of the House debate off limits to the public, the press and the lobbyists on Beacon Hill and can also insulate state reps from recorded votes on controversial amendments that could become fodder for campaign rivals.
It's not a new process though, and it's one that enables the House to get through scores of amendments in a few days, rather than a week or more. The process is also largely conducive to avoiding potentially problematic late-night sessions.
As always, members are free to try to force debate on their individual amendments, but most representatives opt against that route. Rep. Angelo Scaccia of Boston tried on Monday, but lost debates on his amendments to raise the gas tax and rein in the state's film industry tax credit. The House used voice votes to reject both proposals after arguments were made for and against the ideas.
In most cases, representatives opt to make their case for and against amendments to House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey in Room 348, just off the House chamber, and live with his recommendations. When representatives can prevail privately, their amendments, including earmarks for local projects, get quietly packed into the mega-amendments and tacked onto the larger budget without any or much public debate.
The debates in the House lounge used to occur on the House rostrum before House leaders years ago opted to shift away from the public optics of lawmakers crowded around House leaders bargaining for and against public spending and policy proposals.
Rep. James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, tried to advance his amendment Monday lowering the state sales tax to 5 percent from 6.25 percent, but was thwarted by a further amendment backed by House Democrats calling for a study of the issue.
"I like for people to debate it and disagree or agree," Lyons said Tuesday. "There's not a lot of debate. There's not a lot of roll calls." Lyons said he didn't know why more of his colleagues don't try to "pull their amendments" and tee them up individually for debate and possible passage.
Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato, who often presides during sessions, said he did not believe there were fewer recorded votes being taken during this year's budget deliberations.
The Medford Democrat said representatives filed so many amendments to the budget because they want to show their constituents they are fighting for their priorities. But Donato said those same representatives also realize the budget is only growing by about 3.5 percent, and spending amendments face an uphill climb.
"They realize the budget is a good budget and the dollars are scarce," said Donato.
While the process does not lend itself well to public understanding of the arguments for and against amendments, the House has taken longer strides towards transparency in recent years by posting more information about amendments and their disposition on its website.
The Senate plans to debate its budget in May. With 40 members, compared to 160 in the House, senators tend to debate more and are more likely to work their way through amendments individually.
But the Senate also works through its own back channels. Many amendments are introduced with members aware, based on pre-session talks, whether the proposals will be adopted or rejected. And the Senate, in order to expedite its budget deliberations, usually crams scores of amendments into yes and no "bundles" for adoption and rejection on single voice votes.
Once the House and Senate approve their budgets, they are sent to a six-member conference committee, where the biggest budget decisions are made. Conferees usually operate completely in private, producing a consensus budget that is offered to the House and Senate for up-or-down votes.
Since the start of annual budget deliberations on Monday at 10 a.m., the House also took two quorum roll calls aimed at ensuring state representatives are in the chamber for budget deliberations and voted 125-32 to suspend a rule and meet beyond 9 p.m. on Monday.
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