After A Quiet Week, Mass. Budget Debate Gets Underway: Beacon Hill In 5

Apr 23, 2018

Invigorated and recharged from a quiet week on Beacon Hill last week, Massachusetts lawmakers are returning for budget debates. 

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation analyzed the 1,400 amendments filed, and found more than a thousand of them have a quantifiable fiscal impact. NEPR's Carrie Healy asked Matt Murphy what we can expect this week.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: This used to be a four-, sometimes five-day affair. In the past few years, they’ve really narrowed this down to a science, and we've been looking at two days of the debates for the past couple years.

But this year will be interesting to watch.  

This is Ways and Means chairman Jeff Sanchez's first budget -- he'll be leading the debate on the floor. This budget is fairly straightforward.

There are investments in education – the [House] Speaker [Bob DeLeo] has made early education a priority. There are the standard kind of local aid accounts that House lawmakers are looking to beef up. You could see some debate around the provisions that the House is looking to put in -- new oversight of the state police. Some special commissions, a new audit unit to crack down on some of the scandals we’ve seen happen there.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: The budget is really a statement of values, isn’t it?

That's what leaders who write these budgets like to say, that this is more than just numbers, more than just line items. But if you look where they're putting money, and what programs they’re putting money into, that reflects their values as lawmakers, and in this case, as Democrats.

And you have activists who have been complaining for years that the environment often gets overlooked in budgets like these, and they've been pushing to increase spending on environmental programs. But the reality is a lot of the time so much of these budgets are consumed by fixed costs --  and money that they have to spend on programs like MassHealth, pensions, debt service, and things like that.

So there is very little flexibility even in a $40 billion budget for where they can spend discretionary dollars. But where those do go, I guess you could say, is a statement of values.

In the Mass Taxpayers report, they noted commonly underfunded programs include indigent legal defense, family homelessness, sheriffs and snow and ice removal by Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Is there a theory behind leaving certain areas of the budget always in need of more funding, more than others?

This is a strategic thing that you see year after year. They have to put money into these programs. They know some is going to be spent for snow and ice, for instance. They don't want to over-fund that account, and by under-funding it, even though they put a few dollars in, they have money to play with in other programs where they want to spend the money.

Tuesday marks the start of the trial for Bryon Hefner, who was indicted on multiple charges including sexual assault. Last week, Joshua Miller at the Globe wrote about Hefner’s spouse, Senator Stan Rosenberg, who's running for re-election. That report about Rosenberg’s conduct and looking into possible breaches of chamber rules is yet to be released. Have you observed  “the wait” making it trickier for Rosenberg ?

The unresolved circumstances surrounding his continued service in the Senate has made things a little uncomfortable. He has been showing up to sessions, doing his work, filing amendments to bills and trying to just be one of the regular lawmakers after giving up the presidency.

But that is sometimes easier said than done, and certainly, with the ethics investigation hanging over his head, he does have a primary challenger this year. She's not made a big issue out of Hefner, but I think that may kind of take care of itself.

His husband being arraigned in court on the sexual assault charges this week is going to bring the spotlight back on to that whole situation, so it's a difficult time.

The piece you're referring to: I know he told Josh that he has unfinished business in the Senate. And when he says that, this is policy stuff that he cares about, has cared about for decades, in service on Beacon Hill, and he wants to keep working on that. But it's become a little harder for him to just focus on the work and tune out to some of the outside stuff.