How to spend $19-Billion

It's budget time on Beacon Hill.

The busiest, most confusing week of the legislative session begins on Monday when the 160 members of the House of Representatives start the process of spending some $19-billion.

It's the one week all year that I stay in Boston. Because, I like to sleep. And I don't like to leave Boston at midnight each night, only to turn around and be back in the State House by 8 or 9 the next morning.

It's the week that constituents call, panicked because their favorite cause or service hasn't been allocated enough money.

The first year I was in the House, I panicked, too, wondering how I'd ever keep all the line items straight, how I'd ever get funding for anything.

It seemed like everyone else was panicking as well, as budget amendments piled up in the Clerk's office at the beginning of budget week and legislators fell asleep in their seats at the end of the week.

Next week, we'll be working on the budget for fiscal year 1999 (that's July 1, 1998 through June 1999). And every line item will get a going over, with several deleted, some added, some decreased, some increased.

There are also "outside sections," dealing with regulations, policies, things other than money. In the House budget released Monday, tax cuts are also included.

And when it's all over in the House, well, it's not all over at all.

The budget process begins in January, when the Governor releases House One, a Sears catalog-sized document listing every dollar the Governor wants to spend in the coming year.

Then, the House Ways and Means Committee has hearings, in Boston and across the Commonwealth, to determine how the general public and all the state agencies want the tax dollars spent.

Almost simultaneously, the Senate Ways and Means Committee holds similar hearings.

Each prepares their own budget--House version, Senate version.

The House Committee released its budget last Monday. Which meant, basically, that we could throw away the Governor's budget, House One, and start figuring out how each of us could change the Committee's budget.

We all started filing amendments to ask our fellow House members to approve the spending we want, spending that wasn't included in the budget, or to earmark allocations for certain projects.

Each year, hundreds of amendments are submitted. Some are successful, most are not. Some are debated, some go through on a voice vote, some are defeated.

The process takes about a week--next Monday through Friday, maybe even Saturday.

The process has been cleaned up a bit in recent years. The House Rules say we have to adjourn by 10 p.m., unless we vote to continue until midnight. When midnight arrives, we adjourn until the next day. And start all over again.

For example, I've filed amendments looking for money to fund everything from the Samaritan Inn to a senior citizen center, Western Mass Hospital to construction projects.

Well, by week's end, the House budget will be put together. But, again, the process isn't finished. The Senate takes over, forming its own budget, adding and taking away from the House budget. Going through the same process we went through.

And, still, it's not over. The two budgets--House version and Senate version--go to a conference committee to iron out the differences. Combine the two budgets into one, which then goes to both the House and the Senate for final approval.

Then, to the Governor's desk. Where, hopefully, it's approved prior to the start of the new fiscal year.

All $19-billion of it.

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