Let the Games Begin ... It's Budget Time, Again

Bottom line. Everybody wants more.

More for our colleges. More for our schools. More for roads. More for soldiers homes and state hospitals. More for homeless shelters. More for social service workers.

More, more, more.

State Representatives are spending this weekend studying the budget prepared by our Ways and Means Committee. And, preparing amendments to ask for what wasn't included in the budget released this week.

We only have one week to get ready for our annual food fight, or, to be politically correct, budget debates. The talking and wheeling and dealing begins a week from Monday, on April 10.

Last year, about a thousand amendments were submitted. Most, rejected.

But, let's begin at the beginning. Every January, the Governor releases his version of the budget. House One. Every proposed state expenditure is listed, line item by line item. This year it all added up to more than $21 billion.

A friend told me recently that they were offended when another Representative said that he tossed the Governor's budget into the trash and would wait for the House budget. Which doesn't come along until April, sometimes May, and changes a lot of things that were in House One.

Along the way, there's a lot of lobbying from people who want their line items increased. There's a lot of hearings, although they were held to a minimum this year. There's a lot of mail and e-mail and phone calls from constituents who want something changed. And a lot of legislative breakfasts, lunches and dinners sponsored by people with an interest in how the state spends its money.

All of the Representatives make pilgrimages to the chair of Ways and Means, and their friends on the committee, which is why it is always referred to as "the powerful Ways and Means Committee."

Until, finally, committee and staff put together the House budget. It was just given final approval by our committee, and I can say "our," because I am a member of Ways and Means, two days ago. It has to be in print for at least a week before debate begins. And, as I said, that's a week from Monday.

If you were married to House Speaker Tom Finneran, I think you'd say he is, well, cheap, a tightwad, someone who carefully controls the budget. He says he is fiscally conservative, and it's his firm hand that gavels amendments in or out. And, that's not bad. Someone has to watch the purse strings and Finneran, former chair of Ways and Means, certainly knows where he can pare and where he can spend.

He says we, and most state programs, are like alcoholics. We keep coming back for more. But, because he has such a large majority (only 27 of 160 members are Republicans) he'll get what he wants. Regretfully, few amendments actually get voted on, or more would be approved by the members.

The Boston Globe recently gave one of my predecessors, Steve Pierce, applause for being one of the few people, a decade ago, who warned that good economic times wouldn't last for ever and that the state should prepare for a downturn. No one paid attention. Finneran doesn't want Massachusetts to be unprepared if it happens again.

And, we have some major problems to take care of, financially. The Big Dig, the shortfall in the pension fund, the hospital crises, changes in HMOs like the near failure of Harvard Pilgrim, forward funding of the MBTA. So I doubt that we'll see any huge increases in any line item in the House budget this year.

As I said in the beginning, it's more, more, and still more, requests for more money.

If you don't have your request in already, it's really too late. But it's not too late to remind your favorite Representative what your priorities are, and what you want her to support during budget week, usually five and a half full days, from 10 a.m. to midnight, plus into the wee small hours on Saturday, the last day, when sessions begin 10 a.m. Friday and run until 6 or 9 a.m. Saturday.

Once we're successful, it still isn't over, folks. Because the House budget, which we hope to finish before Patriot's Day, is just that. The House budget.

The Senate is already preparing its own budget. And, when we have ours, and they have theirs, both go to a conference committee--three Senators and three Representatives chosen to iron out the differences. Even then, after final approval in House and Senate, it goes to the Governor who can veto items. Then House and Senate can override his vetoes, or sustain them.

Last year, it took until November. We're scheduled to adjourn our formal sessions July 31 this year.

Let the games begin.

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