Our Opinion: Legislature's inexcusable July bottleneck of laws

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Bay State residents treat their legislators well. Each one of them pulls down an average of approximately $64,000 per year, which can be augmented by up to $35,000 for those in leadership positions. Since the Senate has only 40 members, almost all of them manage to hold leadership positions of one kind or another. They get $600 per month in expenses that don't need to be accounted for, as well as full benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. Even though Massachusetts is a state with a full-time Legislature, a majority of the commonwealth's lawmakers report outside income. It's a nice gig if you can get it, which is why our solons work so hard to keep it.

For all this outlay, it would be reasonable for taxpayers to expect their representatives to deliberate, compromise, horse-trade and do whatever is necessary to produce quality legislative work on deadline. The most important item on that list of legislative duties is to craft a state budget, and the denizens of Beacon Hill have had months to work on one. Yet, as of last Thursday, when the governor of South Carolina signed his state's budget, Massachusetts became the last state in the union with no permanent budget in place for fiscal year 2019. Since that year began on July 1, the commonwealth is currently surviving on a one-month stopgap budget that will keep the lights on until legislators do their jobs.

It isn't as though there are too many hands out for too little money; recent state revenue has exceeded expectations, leaving about $200 million to add to a $41-billion total for legislators to spend after other obligations have been taken care of. The Legislature is controlled by a single party, and while intra-party factions have been slowing down the process, there is no "opposition" to speak of.

One way to speed up the process — both now and in the future — would be for both houses to pass "clean" budgets, meaning that they only deal with spending items. Governor Charlie Baker favors such a budget as opposed to the current House and Senate versions. Both are heavily larded with non-spending "policy" riders, to the tune of 109 in the House version and 185 in the Senate's, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Fingers of blame are also pointing at Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, chairman of the all-important House Ways and Means Committee, who is in his first year in the position and still learning the budgetary ropes.

These are weak excuses, and do not constitute sufficient reason for the the Legislature's dilatory and irresponsible behavior, particularly in light of time already spent. A large share of the blame goes to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who appears to be running out the clock on policy proposals advocated for by the more liberal Senate. The Legislature's penchant for secrecy is best demonstrated by Mr. DeLeo and his leadership group, and that secrecy makes it difficult for the press and public to determine why important issues are stalled on an annual basis.

Among those issues stuck in one committee or another are affordable housing, state police reform, short-term rental regulation, data breach protection, civic education enhancement and the opioid crisis. A bill addressing the latter with new reform measures made its way out of a House committee on Tuesday, but if it and similar measures aren't passed and sent to the governor by the end of the session this month they could be relegated to the back burner in the fall.

This is not the efficient, effective Legislature that Massachusetts residents expect, nor is it one they should settle for. Factional allegiances and power plays are to be expected in any lawmaking body, and Beacon Hill has its fair share. Nevertheless, when internal squabbling — or even worse, bureaucratic inertia — reaches the point where it delays the most basic of functions, the full-time Legislature has failed its constituents.


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