Panel votes to keep Massachusetts budget talks private
BOSTON >> A six-member House-Senate conference committee tasked with negotiating a final version of the nearly $40 billion state budget began Friday by voting to hold its deliberations behind closed doors.
The move was anticipated and consistent with the Legislature's practice of keeping the vast majority of conference committee negotiations out of public view.
The panel — made of up three House members and three from the Senate — gathered Friday for its first meeting in the office of Senate Ways and Means chairwoman Karen Spilka. Its job is to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
After brief opening statements from Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, and Rep. Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat and House Ways and Means chairman, the committee unanimously approved a motion to go into executive session. A group of reporters then filed out of the room.
By rule, conference committee meetings, like legislative hearings and sessions, are open to the public, but the panels may decide to go behind closed doors — and generally do.
An exception this year was a conference committee that held open discussions on a bill that overhauled the state's public records law. The measure promises improved access for citizens and journalists to government records and was widely hailed as a step toward greater transparency on Beacon Hill.
Legislative leaders say they would support opening up more conference committees, but contend that negotiating the budget in public would be impractical. They cite the sheer complexity of the spending plan which includes thousands of line item appropriations and so-called "outside sections," including a Senate proposal to phase out single-use plastic bags in retail stores.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, recalled that an attempt to open up budget conference committees in the 1980s was a "disaster," with lawmakers posturing in public and delaying resolution of the budget, he said.
The current budget negotiations come amid a backdrop of uncertainty over tax collections that have fallen below benchmarks in recent months, leaving the state with a potential $300 million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year and casting some doubt on next year's projections.
Before the vote to close the meeting, Spilka said she looked forward to working with the panel to "produce a fiscally responsible, sound budget," for Massachusetts.
"We have a lot of work to do," added Dempsey.
Other conference committee members are Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, Sen. Vinny deMacedo, R-Plymouth, Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington and Rep. Todd Smola, R-Warren.
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