It's Budget Week and We're Spending $23-billion

It's the longest week of the year. Budget week in the House of Representatives. Minimum schedule is 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, until we finish.

Oh, not that we're overworked when it comes to casting our votes. Hardly. Since we were sworn in January, we've had only four other formal sessions. And, no action, no votes, at two of those. (The other two? We decided the rules we will operate under this year, and voted to defeat the death penalty.)

And, frankly, nothing we do this week is cast in stone. The budget-which probably will come in around $23-billion-still has to go on to the Senate, satisfy a conference committee that will negotiate the differences between House and Senate, and then pass muster with the Governor. The Governor can veto line items, but cannot add any funding.

The budget itself is 356 pages, with every one of the state's line items printed and bound inside shiny silver covers. There's a photo of a statue in Norwood ("Protectors of the American Way") on the front. The whole thing is dedicated to Congressman Joe Moakley (who is dying of cancer) because he "never forgot about the citizens for whom we draft this bill" and because his life "is and ever shall be a shining example of good and true public service."

The book lists the Ways and Means Committee and staff members, has an Irish poem and the state seal, and includes a letter from the Ways and Means Chairman, brief summaries of various sections, and some other stuff which, if you want to read, go online to www.state.ma.us/legis/house/2002budget/hwm.htm

As Westfield's Representative, I look for money for various institutions. Like the Westfield District Court at $960,000; Westfield State College with just over $21-million; Western Mass Hospital at $13-million plus another $3-million shared with the other state hospitals to acquire and maintain medical equipment; and the Holyoke Soldiers Home with almost $17-million.

There are many other dollars appropriated in the budget for Westfield, from schools to the Air National and Army National Guards, Medicaid to Dare and Safe programs, money to train our police officers and fire fighters. Normal stuff, allocations we all expect.

What every Representative wants is something extra for our districts.

To do that, we meet with the Ways and Means Chairman and (in my case) the Ranking Republican on Ways and Means and let them know what we want. And they decide what we will be rewarded with. Little "extras," if you will. Not things like bridges, or schools, because they're already included. But, extras.

This year, I asked for, and received, a $240,900 earmark, to support the Samaritan Inn, our homeless shelter. You may not think this an "extra," but until two years ago when I decided to make it my priority, the shelter received only $42,000 annually from the state.

I asked for, and received, $85,000 to help restore the Westfield green, or common. Money suggested by Mayor Rick Sullivan.

I asked for, and received, $45,000 to buy three motorcycles. Yes, motorcycles. For our police department. Chief John Camerota told me that they'd be a real asset when we start closing traffic lanes to repair and replace our city's numerous bridges. A way for our officers to get through and around the traffic jams we expect.

So, John, quick! Call the Senator and ask him to keep them in the budget. And, remember, our own Senator Mike Knapik is the most powerful Republican in the Senate when it comes to money!

I also asked for, and received, an additional $40,000 for community policing.

There are a lot of other things I want. Some are in my amendments to the budget-like a pilot program for the PVTA, so it can provide bus service to our industrial areas and to underserved neighborhoods like Union Street. Or, $225,000 in matching funds so Kamp for Kids can start construction of a permanent building at its campsite on the Western Mass Hospital grounds.

Others are in joint amendments. More money for Westfield State, for libraries, for welfare fraud investigators. Just for starters.

This year, Representatives offered up some 800 amendments (down from last year's all time record of 1,400 amendments). Some are gaveled down without debate. Or, accepted without debate. Others are debated at length or need several votes on amendments to the amendments.

In the end, not everyone will be pleased. The courts, colleges, schools, and a host of other good organizations and causes deserve more than we can provide. We have to balance the budget-money going out equaling money coming in. And we have to balance needs, requests, and priorities. Just like we do in our own household budgets.

Nothing, at this point, is certain. Only that, when done, we will have allocated that $23-billion. Which, I hasten to point out, are your tax dollars.

We can only hope that we have spent those dollars as wisely as possible. And, that if we haven't, the Senate, Conference Committee, or Governor, will correct our errors and omissions.

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