Field Notes from the State House: Senate Budget Debate

This week at the State House, the Senate will debate the budget proposal that its Committee on Ways and Means released last Wednesday. The 39 Senate members (there’s currently one vacancy) have filed 725 amendments to the Committee’s budget. After a couple days of internal discussions on Monday and Tuesday, the debate will likely begin on Wednesday. Not all the amendments will receive formal consideration — at some point, probably on Thursday, the amendments that have not yet been considered will be sorted by the Committee into two “bundles,” as they’re called: a thumbs-up bundle, and another — larger — thumbs-down bundle. The Committee’s bundling decisions are generally accepted, but any Senator can contest a call.

Not surprisingly, the members of the minority party often file amendments in excess of their numbers, and this year that is particularly true. In fact, one Senator, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr from Gloucester, is the author of 14 percent of the amendments — 103 of the 725.

Let’s see what vision of state government the GOP amendments offer.

Certainly the Norquistian “drown it in a bathtub” approach is prominent. There are amendments to lower both the sales and income taxes to five percent, which would reduce available revenues by billions of dollars. Also, there’s one that might bring some unwanted attention to a U.S. Senate candidate — proposing that the state ought to be giving away lots more money in historic preservation tax credits (now come out from behind that facade, Mr. Gomez).

But is the GOP entirely committed to small government? Apparently not. For one thing, there’s no end to the money that they feel the state should spend in order to ensure that not one single person who is not eligible for public benefits receives them. And a true libertarian would dismiss the amendment to prohibit young people from receiving drivers’ licenses until they have pledged to abide by the laws as a misguided effort to involve the government in meaningless gestures.

Most significantly, many of the GOP amendments propose additional spending, notwithstanding the drop in revenues that would result from their proposed tax cuts. Our police training facilities are inadequate. Our seawalls are falling apart. More people need help paying for health insurance. Dams are in urgent need of repair. Contaminants in our aquifers may be migrating into the water supply and causing cancer in children. All these problems sound like they might be legitimate concerns of government, but the GOP’s overriding priority of tax cuts undermines a serious discussion about them.

Oh, and one more spending item. Apparently our sewer costs are just too much to impose on individual property owners and the government must step in to shoulder more of the burden.

The vision of the GOP budget? Government has an obligation to drain all bathtubs, even those intended for drownings.

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