After a long week, the House finished the budget at about 6:30 on Friday night.
Given the consensus against new taxes and a budget that already included deep cuts, there wasn’t much room to move. Although members offered 869 amendments, most were not debated and the financial outlines of the budget remained unchanged — rising health care costs, modest cuts in local aid, deep cuts to many state agencies, no tax cuts and no tax increases. See the willbrownsberger.com for more detail.
The budget process tends to involve a lot of negotiation that occurs away from the floor of the house. Most amendments are folded in to “consolidated amendments” worked out by the Ways and Means Committee and presented for package votes. Members retain the freedom to pull amendments out for floor debate.
Some long-time house members pine for the old days when each proposed amendment was considered in order on the floor, but acknowledge that even in the old days sheer practicality required that amendments eventually be managed in bulk — instead of a formal consolidated amendment process, amendments were bundled and dumped in the wee hours when everyone was beyond caring.
Given the lack of much to negotiate or debate in this budget, we devoted a lot of energy to collateral disputes. Although members frown in principle on amendments that go too far afield, the rules of the budget process allow broad latitude and the temptation to further other agendas is irresistible. We even had a vote on the death penalty last week.
The problem with amendments on issues away from the budget is that they generally come up with little warning and little opportunity for the members to become fully informed on what is at stake. In the absence of information, the debates can be emotional.
For example, we debated an amendment to require that various benefit programs use a new federal system to exclude undocumented immigrants. Talk radio heated up the subject and we began to get calls urging us to cut off the illegals; we also began to get a counter wave of calls urging us not to let Massachusetts become Arizona. We had an emotional debate about philosophy and stereotypes without much reference to facts.
Here is the irony. All of the major benefit programs — Medicaid, AFDC (welfare) and food stamps — already do exclude undocumented immigrants and many already use the federal system in question to verify immigration status. So, the amendment wouldn’t necessarily change existing practice in the main programs and no one has a good handle on how it would affect smaller programs. The final vote, which I supported, was to study the question further. Given what I have been able to learn since, I feel that was a good vote. More detail is available on my website.
The procedural move of creating a study (unlikely ever actually to be completed) was used heavily in this session to kill other politically charged amendments and itself became the subject of debate. In my view, it doesn’t make much difference how one kills a question — the public knows what is going on either way — but many members feel that a study vote sends a softer, more acceptable message.
I am pleased to report some progress on the issue of budget transparency, including tax credit transparency. We voted for a web system that should make existing information much more accessible and provide more information to the public. There are some additional practice changes that I am seeking for house operations, but there was a strong sense that those changes should be handled through the House Rules process which will occur in January 2011.