• Maria Duaime Robinson

[CommMag] A look at the House’s private budget debate


May 1, 2019


JUST AFTER 8 p.m. last Monday, Rep. Paul Donato alerted his fellow House lawmakers that a five-page, $9.2 million document was now available for their review, eight hours after the start of a closed-door meeting where representatives could pitch House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz on their proposals for education and local aid, two big areas of public investment.

Forty-seven minutes after Donato’s announcement, and with scant public explanation, that five-page package of additional education and local aid spending was unanimously tacked on to the House’s version of next year’s budget in the first of nine similar votes the House took over the course of four days of budget consideration.

Using a familiar process authorized by the House in early April, the House addressed — either by including it in the budget or leaving it out — 1,260 of the 1,370 amendments representatives had filed by consolidating them into nine packages assembled by the Ways and Means Committee staff and voted on as single entities.

The House last week took 16 recorded votes and adopted a grand total of 21 amendments outside of those consolidated packages.

Across the four days, as the House approved leadership’s $42.7 billion budget plan and roughly $71 million in additional spending, there was seven hours and 39 minutes of action that took place inside the House Chamber and within public view, an analysis of full session audio recordings found. The rest of the action happened behind closed doors as the consolidated amendments were compiled through a process favored by legislators but which critics say centralizes power among a handful of House leaders and keeps the public in the dark about the give and take on one of the most critical pieces of legislation.

On Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo offered his own explanation of how the House conducts the budget process. He said each member has a chance to meet one-on-one with the chairman of Ways and Means “in terms of what their priorities” are and then another chance, in the Room 348 meetings, to make their case.

“And bottom line, when folks talk about the fact that their item was not debated or they wish there was some debate, each and every member has the ability to take that amendment outside of the so-called consolidated amendment and debate it if they are displeased with the decision of the chair,” DeLeo said. “So it’s up to the members, whatever they wish to do.”

Though lawmakers have that option to remove their amendments from the consolidated packages and open them up to individual debate, only Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston opted to do so this year. His proposal to rework the legislative pay structure — which he said would result in more equitable salaries for what are essentially the same jobs and reduce House leadership’s influence over the members — failed on a 5-151 vote.

Holmes said afterward he was not surprised by the vote and did not find the budget process to be open and accessible to the public.

“Most decisions, clearly, are being made behind backrooms, and I agree with everything I’ve read in terms of how we lack transparency,” the Mattapan Democrat said. “However, this is what folks find efficient, and I’m everyone’s equal in this building, including the speaker, the majority leader and anyone else. We all have the same rights, and I can pull out my amendment, and that’s why I did it. I think other people should do it as well, but no one wants to get out of sorts with the leadership.”

DeLeo said the representatives he spoke with last week thought the process worked well and “felt it was one of the best budgets they were involved with.” When pressed about the remarkably small amount of public debate, the speaker said it is important to focus on the end result rather than the process used to get there.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz spoke to reporters in mid-February after Michlewitz was promoted to the budget-writing position.

“What I would ask the public to do would be to take a, again, let’s take a look at the final product and what I see as the final product is each and every member representing their district very well and each and every member representing their particular interest or concern,” he said. “Again, if that member who filed the amendment felt that it was necessary for it to be debated in public or on the floor, they have that ability.”

In addition to avoiding debates, House lawmakers opted to dispense with most amendments without direct votes.

The Holmes amendment marked one of six recorded votes on the House budget that was not unanimous and one of only four recorded votes on an individual amendment that was not consolidated.

In total, the House took 16 recorded votes. One, a quorum call, essentially took attendance, and another was to continue meeting past 9 p.m. on Wednesday night. Nine votes were on consolidated amendments, and the final vote, at 8:35 p.m. on Thursday, was 154-1 to pass the budget. Holmes voted in opposition.

Michlewitz’s office did not respond to  requests to speak with the chairman about the budget process. House Minority Leader Brad Jones, who was notably quiet during last week’s budget debate, also did not respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday, a few hours before the final vote on the spending bill, Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee Chairman William “Smitty” Pignatelli observed that the process was going “smoothly,” but with “not as much debate on either side of the aisle.”

Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who’s served in the House since 2003, attributed the lack of debate to cooperation among Democrats and Republicans and Michlewitz’s preparation.

“I think we’re working well together,” he said. “I’ve been in those [Room] 348 meetings, Aaron is very attentive. I think he’s done a lot of work in advance.”

For Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a first-term Democrat from Northampton, the meetings in Room 348 provided a “great opportunity” to get to know her colleagues and their districts. The experience of hearing other lawmakers defend their amendments and make their case for spending priorities was a “positive I was not expecting,” she said.

Sabadosa was among a handful of new House Democrats who live-tweeted their budget experience, including updates from within the closed-door meetings. “Nothing is decided there,” Sabadosa said of Room 348. “The representatives go in and advocate in about 30 seconds for their amendments that are consolidated within the topic area (& others they may support).”

Rep. Maria Robinson of Framingham described one gathering as “a last-chance pitch meeting where folks get to advocate for amendments (theirs or others),” and noted the room was “super warm.” Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton said a meeting she was in was “very focused, collegial, and on-topic,” and Rep. Mindy Domb of Amherst said the huddles provided a “real education into the needs of the Commonwealth – across the state – and the strong advocacy reps make for their districts’ concerns, problems, and needs.”

“It’s actually been really fun to celebrate other people’s wins,” Sabadosa said in an interview.

A member of the Progressive Caucus, Sabadosa said she’s gotten support from staff and the caucus in interpreting consolidated amendments before voting on them. “You learn quickly how to do it, how to read it, and what it means,” she said. “You just have to sit down with it.”

Sabadosa, who posted nightly Instagram video updates for her constituents and penned a pre-debate column on “demystifying” the budget process for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, said there are “always ways to make things more transparent.”

The consolidated amendment process is not new. The first mention of consolidated amendments in the News Service’s online archive, which dates to 1986, came at about 2:30 a.m. in June 1988 when Senate President William Bulger put a package of budget amendments on the floor and Assistant Minority Leader David Locke praised the idea.

Under House Speaker Thomas Finneran in the early 2000s, consolidated amendments became a way for House budget managers to deal with repetitive or duplicative amendments. Rather than consolidating dozens of amendments as is the practice today, the House about two decades ago often merged just a handful of amendments at a time.

By 2005, when Speaker Salvatore DiMasi was in power and tapped DeLeo to run the Ways and Means Committee, the modern-day budget debate process began to take form in the House. Members would meet privately in Room 348 to voice their priorities to committee leaders and staff, and then would wait to find out if their amendments survived.

In 2010, after DeLeo ascended to the speakership, the consolidated amendment practice had “been a common practice for years, this year, House members have put the process into overdrive.” The House had adopted 22 consolidated amendments, each on a single topic. In 2009 and in 2010 the committee “crammed as many as five large categories into one” and the House adopted seven amendment packages.

This year, the House dealt with 1,260 individually-filed amendments across nine consolidated amendments, most of which dealt with at least two topic areas.

“It’s different now. I don’t know if it’s any better or any worse, but it’s just a different process from what it used to be,” Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts director Jim Wallace said outside the House Chamber last week. “It used to be 1,400 amendments they’d go through one by one and we’d be here until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning for four or five days in a row. I can remember lobbyists bringing pillows into the gallery.”

Over the years, House leaders have defended the consolidated amendment process and extended its use to other areas of debate, like economic development bills and the expanded gaming law. In 2012, then-chairman of Ways and Means Rep. Brian Dempsey said allowing members to debate issues on the floor could become unwieldy.

“What’s interesting about [Room] 348 is I think sometimes folks don’t appreciate it’s really about logistics. It’s very difficult to have a debate in the House chamber when you have 30 or 40 folks interested in talking about a particular issue,” Dempsey said.

Wallace, who was unsuccessful last week in lobbying fora budget amendment to establish a task force to review the firearms licensing process, said he’s seen the budget process change in other ways since he started lobbying professionally in the early 2000s.

“They do fewer outside sections. It used to be that if they were having trouble getting a bill moving they would try to throw it into the budget,” he said. “There’s much less of that, which we’re OK with.”

The Senate uses a similar process when it debates its own budget plan, called “bundling.” When the Senate bundles budget amendments, its Ways and Means staff assembles a “yes” pile and a “no” pile and members are similarly empowered to request debate on a specific amendment.

Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative organization that often criticizes the Legislature, said the “blame” for a lack of public debate falls both on House leadership and on “House members who claim to care about transparency and are doing virtually nothing to object.”

“What was once a robust, week long debate on legislators’ most important obligation has been whittled down to sporadic announcements of closed-door meetings taking place in secretive room 348– a room from which both the press and the public are banned from,” Craney said in a statement.

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