Budget Season Debates To Be Blocked On Beacon Hill

Doug Grindle. Courtesy
Doug Grindle. Courtesy
Beacon Hill is gearing up for another cycle of passing the budget.  
    Budget season is not often known for capturing the imagination of ordinary citizens, but this year there is a disturbing development that runs against the humdrum budget news.
    Except this year the budget hearings will be missing one thing – debate on many of the most important issues.
    The Democratic leadership has banned debate on welfare, local aid and school aid.  That adds up to more than a quarter of the budget.  As the state income expands, with hundreds of millions of dollars coming in above projections, this would seem like a good time to have a debate about what to do with all that extra money.  In February alone, $203 million worth of receipts coming in were over benchmark.  In all, FY13 receipts are over benchmark by more than $600 million and the number continues to climb.
    What to do with this extra cash? Under the new rules it won’t be possible to talk about increasing local aid to the towns, nor about reforming how welfare works, including reforming the EBT card system for transfer payments.  
    The Democratic leadership takes the position that the house and senate have passed a local aid language already so it’s best not to upset the apple cart with new language. And welfare, including EBT, is sitting in a conference committee and no one knows how that will appear, so best not to mess with it now.
    The Republicans counter that with more money coming in than expected, local aid should be funded more fully. In fact two Republican state representatives, Lyons and Lombardo, have pushed to increase it by 40% above current levels.  But now that won’t be possible to do.
    The Republicans also point out that the welfare reforms for EBT have languished since last Fall, almost six months ago, and without pressure little action is likely to be taken on it.
    It may be convenient to the leadership to have less debate.  Certainly there is less chance of embarrassing resolutions coming up from the Republican side, which might need to be quashed in ways that could play badly in the press.
    Regardless of the merits of the budget details, and these seem rather thin on the ground to start with, stifling debate is profoundly undemocratic.     
    The state budget is about $36 billion this year. As state spending continues to rise, having less debate rather than more runs against the common interest which is to shed light on government rather than keeping it in darkness.

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