We got through the budget week! The Senate budget unfolded without too much drama along the lines I outlined in my pre-budget piece. Thanks to all for comments on that piece.
A few highlights and notes about the process:
Commenters (and others by phone and email) urged support for the Mass Cultural Council budget. We did get a substantial amendment through for the Mass Cultural Council, up from $9.6 million to $12 million as urged by commenters below. This is an example of a recurring budget dynamic. There are certain programs that have well organized constituencies which are always going to generate budget amendments with broad support in the budget process. MCC is one of those programs and the amendment had over 25 cosponsors. Ironically, since these amendments are anticipated, our experienced budget writers tend to go below their intended outcome for these popular programs in the first draft, allowing room for the floor activity to be successful without disrupting their intended budget balance.
Another program which is always broadly supported is the civil legal aid program. I carried the anticipated amendment for MLAC on the Senate floor which won a $1 million increase from the prior year. That is $1 million below what the House did, but that’s another recurring dynamic in the budget process — if a program has broad support on the House side, the Senate may go low on that program, expecting to compromise upwards in the budget process. The House does the same. Since the budget ultimately has to be balanced and there isn’t much play in the bottom line, each branch tends to want the other branch to assume responsibility and trade in the bargaining process for shared priority items — so giving them more headroom to trade for priorities that are stronger in their own branch.
Where major amendments are not anticipated — because a program comes late to the table, because budget writers have already built strong support for it into their budget, or because the House has made it a visible priority — it is very difficult to secure substantial increases. I got little traction on an amendment that I offered for the “School-to-Careers” private industry partnership program for youth job placements — an excellent program that does a lot in the Brighton area. That program achieved level funding in the House budget and is down slightly in the Senate draft. It is likely to end up level-funded in the final budget, but it is down considerably from pre-recession levels. I hope we’ll be able to make further progress on it perhaps in our economic development bill.
Similarly, I joined a substantial majority in voting in a roll call against an amendment increasing a very popular program that I do support, the METCO program, after we had applied fiscal discipline to amendments for other equally meritorious but less visible programs. The METCO program was level funded in the Senate budget draft, but is funded at $19.1 million in the final House Budget, up 5% from last year, and so is likely to sustain a healthy cost-of-living increase in conference. I considered voting for the amendment, knowing that the departure from discipline would fail, but I would have felt hypocritical, since I joined in opposing amendments that had local appeal for other legislators, for example, I voted no in repetitive roll-calls to increase funding for the Taunton state hospital — another cause I support — we do need more inpatient mental health care options.
Ultimately, the budget process unfolded smoothly largely because members of the Senate felt comfortable that, tweaks aside, the Senate Ways and Means Budget draft reflected a good balance of shared priorities and we were unwilling to badly disrupt that balance. I’ll report further on some particular local priorities in the budget after the conference process — reconciling differences with the House budget — completes in June.