$5.6 billion, 1,566 amendments, Near Zero Public Discussion, Silent Republicans Led by Brad Jones Offer No Noticeable Opposition

Weekly Roundup – The Amendment Lounge

Recap and analysis of the week in state government

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

APRIL 28, 2023…..The hottest club on Beacon Hill right now is not the 21st Amendment, nor Carrie Nation, nor any of the other tried-and-true favorites where lawmakers, lobbyists and other politicos like to congregate after the day’s final gavel comes down.

South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol and Gov. Maura Healey walk through the State House as they make their way to a luncheon in the Senate suite Friday afternoon, following Yoon’s state dinner at the White House earlier this week. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

At least this past week, the gathering place to be was Room 348, or the House Members’ Lounge.

That lounge, for the unfamiliar, is really just a guarded room in the corner of the State House’s third floor. It’s inaccessible to the public and press, but set up so that reps are able to move from the House floor to the lounge and a bank of elevators, if necessary. And during the House’s three-day session to adopt a $56.2 billion state budget, that’s where the real debate took place.

Whatever differences of opinion there were on the largest spending bill of the year — a bill that would expand gambling to another digital front by legalizing online Lottery sales, inject transportation and education programs with the first-ever $1 billion in surtax revenue, and permanently enshrine a pandemic-era eviction prevention measure — were intentionally kept private.

Look at the numbers. There were 1,566 amendments filed, the most to a House budget in more than 10 years, according to the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation. Only three amendments received their own votes on the floor, just one of which went to a recorded roll call.

The other 1,563, collectively proposing some $2.6 billion in additional spending, were sliced and stitched into seven gigantic packages, each of which got a perfunctory introduction and then easy roll-call approval. The deliberations about that Frankenstein-grafting process all took place in — you guessed it — the lounge.

Capping off the final day of work on the behemoth bill, House Speaker Ron Mariano called the process “as efficient and stress-free as any budget in the past 32 I’ve done.”

It seems worth asking: should decision-making about a $56 billion state budget and 1,500-plus proposed changes actually be “efficient and stress-free”? Isn’t democracy, by design, messy and deliberative? Do taxpayers have a sense of “tough choices” that were made?

The septet of mega-amendments together added roughly $120 million in spending, though you wouldn’t know that from comparing the final bottom line to the way top Democrats described their original draft budget. After weeks of referring to the un-amended bill as a $56.2 billion proposal, a House Ways and Means Committee spokesperson said Thursday that older figure already factored in the $120 million eventually added on the floor, placing the bill at $56.2 billion by the time the House adjourned.

Most of the additions are earmarks for projects, organizations or municipalities. MTF estimated that about $82 million in amendment spending will go to earmarks, compared to $47 million for other purposes and a $15 million offset.

The seven amendment packages also approved funding to reimburse public universities for bulk purchase of abortion medication, a 25 percent pay raise for the Governor’s Council — which no representatives mentioned in their public proceedings — and language imposing additional oversight in review of child death cases.

The one standalone amendment that received debate and a vote recording every representative’s position played out along party lines.

Republicans unsuccessfully pushed to leave the voter-approved tax cap law known as Chapter 62F, which last year triggered nearly $3 billion in rebates to taxpayers, unchanged. The House Democrat supermajority instead backed a change that carves new surtax dollars out of the cap calculation, making it less likely that the mandatory relief that appeared to irk Mariano and other top Democrats will happen again.

Rebutting the GOP’s argument that tweaking the calculation would subvert the will of the voters who imposed the cap via a 1986 ballot question, Revenue Committee Co-chair Rep. Mark Cusack pointed to the Legislature’s 2017 overhaul of the successful initiative petition legalizing recreational marijuana use.

“I heard no such urgency and complaints around changing the will of the voters when we rewrote the entire Question 4 law,” the Braintree Democrat said.

The final votes brought to a close House budget season and marked the transition to Senate budget season. Senate Democrats plan to release their own FY24 spending proposal some time in May, and are also pondering a tax relief bill that, similar to the House’s $1.1 billion package (H 3770), would factor into the budget math if senators plan to get any of the relief on the streets soon.

We also limped into the next phase of MBTA slowdowns. Officials scheduled more than a dozen early nighttime closures on the Braintree Branch as part of a May schedule that features disruptions on all four lines.

The T announced Thursday evening that internal and third-party crews had completed their work to redo inspections across the entire subway system in the wake of the mid-March dramatic expansion of speed restrictions on all four lines.

As of Friday morning, those slow zones still cover 23 percent of the network, according to the MBTA’s data.

Now that the validations are done and supposed paperwork gaps have been filled, the persistence of slow zones indicates that nearly one-quarter of the Boston area’s subway system has such substantial defects that T officials don’t think trains can safely run at full speed in those stretches, at least until repairs are done.

That raises a crucial series of questions: If the slow zones are no longer about unclear or missing records and are now about physical track problems, why weren’t they already in place before a Department of Public Utilities site visit tipped over the first domino? How many times did trains cruise at a full 40 mph over the same rails where they are now limited to 10 or 25 mph? Did MBTA higher-ups not know about the widespread defects, or simply not act on them?

In the midst of Gov. Maura Healey’s transformation of MBTA leadership and oversight, those answers have not been forthcoming.

Healey made her latest move Monday, appointing Patrick Lavin — who worked on a 2019 independent report about T safety failures — as the Department of Transportation’s first-ever chief safety officer.

Her selection of a symbolic governor’s portrait to hang in the ceremonial office was a bit less, well, visible.

After inviting students from across Massachusetts to submit essays recommending how to adorn the wall, Healey landed not on a picture of a predecessor but instead on an empty gold frame. The idea, suggested by students Julian Hynes, Ja’liyah Santiago and Adniley Velez, aims to “remind you that there will be large groups of people that remain underrepresented, voiceless, and invisible.”

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, for what it’s worth, opted to hang a portrait of former Gov. Jane Swift, who was elected lieutenant governor and in 1998 became the first woman to execute the duties of governor when Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned for a U.S. ambassador job.

ODDS AND ENDS: … MassDems picked former lieutenant governor nominee Steve Kerrigan to be their next party chair, meaning that both major parties now have new leadership in a non-election year … Point32Health, which includes Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan, still has not brought its systems back online after a cybersecurity attack last week, according to reports … Lawmakers joined with Peter DeMarco, the widower of Laura Levis, to tout the launch of new regulations aimed at boosting emergency department access and visibility. Levis died in 2016 outside CHA Somerville Hospital when she could not find the ER entrance … A landmark SJC ruling cleared the way for two former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home officials to face criminal charges related to the deadly March 2020 COVID-19 outbreak … Gov. Healey on Friday hosted South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol for a state luncheon

One Reply to “$5.6 billion, 1,566 amendments, Near Zero Public Discussion, Silent Republicans Led by Brad Jones Offer No Noticeable Opposition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *