The 2009-2010 Session: A Mixed Bag

The two year formal legislative session, now ended, has been a mixed bag.

Perhaps the best news about the session is that we got through it. We weathered a dramatic loss of tax revenue caused by the recession. We created lots of bad news — we cut most state services and programs deeply; we trimmed local aid; we increased the sales tax and we drew deeply on state financial reserves. The good news is that these measures sufficed to balance the budget on time two years in a row.

The session started badly with the sudden resignation and subsequent indictment of Speaker Sal DiMasi. The outrage that he created — both inside and outside the state house — strengthened the hand of those advocating reform. We were able to reform our pension and ethics laws and to reorganize our transportation bureaucracy, eliminating the Turnpike Authority and increasing controls on the MBTA.

At the first summer break last August, I felt we had made good progress. I was hopeful that, in the second leg of the session, we could make further progress on pension reform, get municipal health care costs under control and increase transparency in the legislative process.

I was successful only on the last of those priorities. Last fall, when we were 18 months into the recession, with deep cuts in many human service programs, I was troubled when legislative leaders asked us to roll over funds to preserve the operations budget of the house — our own staff and systems. I voted to sustain the Governor’s vetoes of those funds and of funds for more jobs in the probation department.

I then started digging in more deeply into how we were using our operational money. I unearthed public records showing that the legislature had spent millions on technology contracts with no public bidding, and that the contracts themselves remain secret. Further, the people running the companies receiving those contracts were big contributors to legislative leaders.

Although it was an uncomfortable fight, I stuck with those issues and achieved some progress: We passed measures in the budget that will require all spending by any state agency, including the House itself, to be easily accessible on a public website. This increased transparency will help, but will not suffice to change business practices. In the next session, I will start off by working to change the House rules around procurement.

The big news in the winter was education reform. Advocates touted these reforms as “ending the achievement gap” while union leaders called them “anti-teacher.” I felt that neither of those labels was fair — the reforms we passed were sound basic management reforms that should have a modest positive impact. I was personally pleased that we were able to include language making it easier for school districts to use new online learning technology.

The final story of the session was casinos, which I have long opposed. I was delighted that, in the end, the casino push failed. But we neglected other major issues: We failed to make the necessary further progress on pension and health benefit reform and we took only baby steps on general health care cost control. These will be high priorities for me in the next session.

Other continuing high priorities for me in the next session will be clean energy, opening the door to innovation in learning, and, of course, serving the direct needs and concerns of my constituents in the 24th Middlesex District.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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