We are headed into budget season in the legislature – the part of the legislative cycle that is hardest to manage in an orderly and transparent way.  Proposed amendments to the budget bill often raise controversial and complex policy issues that deserve more consideration than they can receive in the context of the hectic budget process.

Good legislation takes time – time to understand problems, time to identify alternative solutions, time to consult other legislators, time to seek public input, time to build bridges with opponents, time to sort through complex details. 

That work normally gets done through the committee process.  Bills are filed at the start of each two-year session and referred to appropriate joint committees for review and refinement.  The committees include members of both branches.  

If a bill is voted out of committee, then it is released for amendment, debate and passage in the House and Senate.   The bill versions as amended in each branch typically differ.  For major bills, differences are usually resolved by a conference committee of six legislators, three from each branch.

The state budget is just another bill, but it is handled in a different way.  Each branch has its own Ways and Means Committee.  The Governor starts the process by filing a draft budget every year in January, but the Ways and Means Committees then each develop their own draft budgets and release those drafts to their respective branches for amendment, debate and passage.  

The House does its budget in the last week of April and the Senate does its budget in the week before Memorial day.  The House and the Senate each consider approximately 1000 amendments to the budget.   Then conference negotiators for the two branches then have about a month to work out all the differences between the draft budgets.

Generally, amendments to a proposed bill must relate to the subject matter of the bill.  A legislator cannot add an amendment pertaining to the use of cell phones to a bill about drug prices.  However, because the budget touches more or less everything in state government, it is hard to rule any amendment out of scope. 

As a result, virtually any other bill by can be added to the budget bill as an amendment.  There is no harm to this when the added bill is non-controversial.  The harm comes when controversial or especially complex legislation is raised out-of-the-blue as a budget amendment.  Then legislators are compelled to vote without preparation or the opportunity to engage in responsible negotiation about critical details of the issue.

Nor can the necessary vetting and consensus development occur through the closed-door conference process.  Only six legislators are at the conference table and they cannot consult with stakeholders.  From a transparency and participation perspective, adding complex proposals to the budget is the worst way to get them sorted out. 

Further, there are only so many hours during which the conferees can engage with each other.   Budget conferees have enough talking to do about the budget itself and cannot be expected to chew through other major policy problems.  Overloading the budget negotiators with complex collateral proposals can result in a late budget with all the uncertainty that creates.  And it rarely generates the hoped-for results: Complex collateral proposals usually end up getting dropped from conference reports.

There are times when – as a result of logistical or political dynamics — there is no other choice but to shove a complex issue into a budget amendment.  But the more I understand the work necessary to get legislation right, the more I appreciate the value of keeping the budget process as clean and simple as possible. 

That means I have become increasingly willing to vote against complex budget amendments even when I passionately support their intentions. 

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

Join the Conversation

22 Comments

  1. Thank you for this clear review of state legislative process as well as your comments at the end. This is a keeper! Helen Soussou

  2. Your thoughtful approach to these knotty issues is always so deeply appreciated. The balance between acting and not-acting and which might be more beneficial is why I’m thankful you are our state senator.

  3. Outside sections of the budget have been notorious for decades. Unfortunately, people like to get things through without having them see the light of day.

  4. You well describe one of the many aspects of the legislature’s dysfunction. It’s great to see so many ways the legislators have to avoid any accountability for their failure to pass truly good bills of any kind (whether “complex” or not) or to pass a budget that prioritizes regular people over the rich special interests. The budget process, like the legislative process generally, in Massachusetts, is a matrix of plausible deniability and unaccountability. But it’s always interesting to see what each new year’s excuses from “progressive” Democrats will be. Sorry to be so negative, Senator. Thanks for any good things you may have actually done.

  5. Thanks for explaining this so clearly. Even trained political scientists have lots to learn about how the legislature really works.

  6. I support you. Say “No” with all those red herrings attached, and invite/take/push/force the discussion/action back to the core issues.

  7. Thank you for your thorough explanation of how House and Senate Legislators prepare and complete the budgetary process.
    The process was opaque to me.
    And I endorse your opinions.

  8. Will, thank you for this explanation. Not only do I support your conclusion about the undesirability of using the budget to sneak in other legislation, I comment your explanation of how the process works.

    I would look forward to receiving other descriptions of the processes by which our state government functions. I’m sure many other constituents would, also.

  9. Perhaps the problem of complex bills being submitted in the last minute is something the new Senate President can work to resolve.

  10. Thanks for the clarity of this description and declaration of your intention of how you will participate in this process!

  11. I’m glad you’ve taken this position and that you recognize that there are times when exceptions may need to be made.

  12. Makes sense. Has this idea not come up before? Has it been killed because the legislators want the flexibility to get a favored bill passed without a lot of debate?

  13. H. 832 is critical to our future. As a member of Elders Climate Action, as a father, a teacher, and retired physician, I urge you to make action on climate a priority no matter what complexities. Wayne Wild

  14. Thank you for the explanation. I appreciate your efforts to educate the people in your district on the political process.

    It reminds me of updating a quality system in a regulated industry; major changes shouldn’t be pushed through without an appropriate level of discussion involving multiple functions.

  15. Your unwillingness to pass complex amendments without proper vetting and discussion, even ones that seem favorable, is a principled stand. It is also good to know, since your voting record could make you appear to be against funding a worthy project.

  16. My friend Bob Capeless, former Commissioner of Taxation taught me about the evils of outside sections of the budget. This is a tried and true way to sneak special interest bills into a must pass piece of legislation. I applaud your vigilance.

  17. This is an outstanding post that reflects good stewardship, the kind of prudence, loyalty, and care that help sustain the public trust. As an elected official, you also are a fiduciary of the public interest. This informative post shows that you take this responsiblity very seriously — and have enhanced it by embracing the role of civic educator. Bravo on both counts!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *