The House won’t be holding its debate on the annual budget for a couple of weeks, but they set the ground rules for it yesterday.
House leadership has been imposing various constraints on the budget debate for the past dozen years or so. The most significant of these is the “Consolidated Amendment” process, under which the House Ways and Means Committee groups the amendments (which last year totaled 897) into subject matter areas and then, after meeting with interested Reps in a side room near the House Chamber, drafts a single amendment for that subject matter area incorporating some –but certainly not all — of the amendments filed.
Some years, the “Holland Amendment” has been in effect. This rule, named for Iris Holland, a Representative from Longmeadow and advocate of fiscal restraint, required that any amendment exceeding $100,000 had to be offset by savings from some other area of the budget.
This year, there’s no Holland Amendment, but, for the first time in my memory, the budget ground rules include a prohibition on amendments pertaining to two subject matter areas — welfare and local aid (the money paid by the state to cities and towns for schools, police, fire protection and other services).
House leadership defends its rule by pointing out that the issue of welfare was debated already this session and is now in Conference Committee, and the House voted unanimously on a local aid resolution earlier this year, so the members have had their say on that issue as well.
But the Republican members of the House, all of whom opposed the new prohibition, are pretty steamed about it. We can expect to hear repeated denunciations of this latest lack of transparency, especially because local aid and welfare have typically been the favorite subjects of the minority party’s budget advocacy. Increasing aid to cities and towns, besides being universally popular, is also a useful proxy for decreasing spending on state programs. And these reps of late have been obsessed with welfare fraud, which they enjoy using to monopolize the budget debate with long and loud condemnations of what they claim is the chief source of the state’s fiscal woes. (Please try to pay no attention to the fact that the welfare program accounts for less than one percent of the state budget.) Now that welfare is off the table, they will be in a frantic search for new scapegoats.
What to think of the new ground rules? Although as a general matter, more transparency is certainly preferable to less, the “torch and pitchfork” caucus has been hijacking the budget debate for years now, so I’m in favor.