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After 'stress-free' House debate lacking transparency, Mass. budget moves to the Senate

A file photo from the Mass. House Chamber as representatives voted on the state budget for fiscal year 2020.
Tami Gouveia / Twitter
State House News Service
A file photo from the Mass. House Chamber as representatives voted on the state budget for fiscal year 2020.

The highly anticipated $56 billion budget passed in the Massachusetts House last week following a multi-day budget debate. The process now moves to the state Senate.

Chris Lisinski of the State House News Service covered the three days of debate in the House, and described what it looked like.

Chris Lisinski, State House News Service: This was really more of sitting in the House chamber while all sorts of meetings took place in private behind closed doors as representatives decided which of the 1,566 amendments filed to the budget would survive and which ones would be left on the cutting room floor.

They did all of that out of public view and instead came back to the chamber whenever they were ready to roll out what's called a consolidated amendment, which is basically a big old Frankenstein package, stitching together hundreds of individually proposed changes to get approved with a single vote all at once.

So there's very little action on the floor, very little debate on the floor, and instead a lot of sitting around, socialization and closed-door meetings to figure out the ways to tweak what is — we should note — the largest spending bill every year in state government.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So it was productive. But there was a hope for a greater transparency on Beacon Hill in the Maura Healey era. This process clearly wasn't transparent. What are critics saying about this hearing?

We've been hearing a lot of the same criticism that we've been hearing for years about how Beacon Hill is really just insulated from the public and feels like — particularly Democrats who, we should note, wield supermajority margins and control. Both the House and Senate feel that they simply don't owe the public any greater insight into how they do their business and the decisions that they make over using taxpayer dollars.

One specific example that comes to mind that drew a lot of criticism from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is one of the mega amendments [that] awarded a 25% pay raise to members of the Governor's Council, an elected body that vets and confirms judicial nominees. But you wouldn't know that unless you dove into the 12- to 15-page text of that consolidated amendment and happened to notice the line item because nobody mentioned it — not the amendment sponsor, not any of House leaders who introduced it. They just let that flow through silently and it seems hoped that no one would notice.

So that process lasted three days before it passed on that 156-0 vote. That means some Republicans and perhaps the one unenrolled representative from Athol all voted in favor of the plan?

Yep, that is correct. This won unanimous support from everyone in the chamber.

You know, state budgets typically do. In the past, we've seen a little bit more debate, but not enough to sink the ultimate bill itself. These are bills that are packed with earmarks. Representatives are pretty happy to go along with major spending increases because it means that they can go back to their districts and point specifically to what they won for cities and towns, for local organizations, for local projects through this process.

And I think it's also worth noting that this comes on the heels of the House approving a tax relief plan that's factored into the bottom line here. So that probably won more reps over and helped soften any criticism or worries they might have had behind closed doors.

House Speaker Ron Mariano has 32 years experience in budgeting on Beacon Hill. What did he have to say about this bill's passage — and like you said, the largest budget in the state's history.

Mariano called this — and I'll read you his quote: "This was as efficient and stress-free as any budget in the past 32 I've done."

And now that baton is passed to the Senate. Are you expecting to see a similar budgeting process as the one we just saw in the House, in the Senate?

Roughly similar. Probably some more commentary on the floor and a little bit more transparency, but a roughly similar process.

And not to be overlooked, Chris, the top Massachusetts state courtrevived a criminal neglect case last week against officials who ran the Holyoke Soldiers' home. That was the site of a deadly COVID outbreak in the early days of the pandemic. Maura Healey, now governor, was attorney general three years ago and initially announced charges against those officials. What's next and how will this proceed?

It appears to be headed back to Hampden Superior Court for trial at this point, at least according to new Attorney General Andrea Campbell. We're more than three years after that deadly outbreak in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.

Both of the two officials charged over that outbreak have not worked there for years at this point. But it appears that, once again, this is going to be back in the headlines and reopen these old wounds as we set out to see if a jury is going to decide that criminal charges are the right way to hold [former Superintendent] Bennett Walsh and Dr. David Clinton accountable for what happened.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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