Massachusetts House of Representatives:  A Farce in Two Acts

Printed from:

The lightning-fast approval of a $40 billion state budget by the Massachusetts House of Representatives this week offers a glimpse into what’s wrong around here.

Closed-door meetings, amendments shackled together or tossed aside — and then two days of debate and away we go.

Only one of the 160 members of the House voted against the state budget, state Representative James Lyons. The Andover Republican was quoted by State House News Service making a simple point:

“We really need to understand what we’re voting on, and we don’t.”

The sad fact is, a $20 million budget for a small town in the commonwealth gets far more scrutiny amid far more openness than the 2,000-times-larger state budget.

We’d like to see House Speaker-for-Life Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) try in a Town Hall what he routinely pulls on the floor of the Great and General Court — under the watchful eyes of the Sacred Cod, no less.

In a typical town in Massachusetts, the selectmen propose a budget, but then members of the town’s Finance Committee get to examine it and quiz town employees and elected officials on any details — in public meetings where reporters and other members of the public can attend and (often) ask questions. Then voters at Town Meeting can ask questions and offer amendments before voting on the budget.

That’s not to say the budget process in a town is always on the level. The fix is often in, of course. But at least residents have a chance to find out what’s going on and to have some influence over it.

Not so in our state Legislature.

The budget for fiscal year 2018 (which starts this coming July 1) is apparently too precious to allow the unwashed hands of the public to defile it. But not even all legislators get a clean shot at it.

Paul Craney, executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which advocates for transparency in government, notes that the trend in the House is to allow less and less time to discuss the budget in public session.

During certain times of the year the House operates in so-called “informal” session, during which only a handful of legislators need be present to enact legislation. Usually that legislation is locally oriented and noncontroversial, but Craney points out there’s plenty of room for maneuver.

“Having watched the trend toward secrecy during DeLeo’s tenure as Speaker, I won’t be surprised if the 2019 budget moves in informal session next year,” Craney said in a written statement Wednesday.

For years the trend has also been to do whatever the Speaker says. That’s particularly the case now that the Speaker has shepherded through a pay raise for legislators.

Which leads to a question:  What is the point of having 160 state representatives? Perhaps we could streamline state government by limiting the “people’s” house to a speaker and maybe five or 10 committee chairmen. Would certainly save some money in pay raises.