Analysis: Writer’s Block on Beacon Hill Grew over Time but Now Must Change…
UPDATED 9:36PM: For clarity.
The Massachusetts legislature finally passed a budget and on Thursday, Governor Maura Healey will have signed it into law. It is all but certain that the annual spending plan will be the most significant piece of legislation of the 193rd General Court of the Commonwealth. When compared to Democratic trifectas in that took office in some Midwest states, that record is, at best, modest.
The decline in legislative activity is not new nor is it unique to Massachusetts. If Congress had ever been efficient and productive, it was not this millennium. Still, Beacon Hill has been sputtering more in recent years. The pandemic, a Republican governor reps and senators—naively—feared and past legislative leaders’ methods contributed to this. Yet, this threatens the commonwealth’s place as a national leader on numerous fronts.
Some legislative peanut gallerists have observed that the massive Democratic majorities are a factor. This creates a wide span of ideological interests to satisfy. Indeed, the new Democratic majorities in Lansing and St. Paul are quite narrow. That leaves Democratic whips little room for error, but it also means fewer people in the caucuses to placate. But narrower majorities in the Bay State cannot fix this.
Since the term began in January, Massachusetts legislators have also run aground resurfacing inter-chamber rivalry. This fight flared up a few times in the last decade, including under both of House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka’s predecessors. But interpersonal conflict and differences about committee rules are not new.
Publicly, officials are not showing any alarm. During the monthly Ask the Governor at GBH News, Healey was asked about the slow progress of her tax proposal. The budget includes a space for its cost, but no text for the relief is in the spending document.
“Budgets take time. Behind numbers are people. Behind numbers are policy,” she said. The plodding pace did not surprise her. “It’s just the process of policy making.”
A spokesperson for Mariano did not respond to a request for comment about the legislature’s pace. A spokesperson for Spilka declined to comment.
Legislative offices have noted that the budget itself has policy. In addition to a billion for early education and millions for school meals and to lay groundwork for free community college, its text includes changes in law. Among those are free prisoner phone calls, instate tuition for residents regardless of immigration status, rental protections and bolstering health care coverage guarantees.
While the raw number of bills passed can mislead, 2023 does lag like years. Because the legislative session ends on July 31 in election years, the best comparators are odd years. Most show a dozen or two more bills that became law relative to 2023 before August.
As noted above, this follows a longer, if slower deterioration of the legislature. Former Speaker Robert DeLeo largely kept controversy well out of reps’ laps. Meanwhile, members of both chambers were happy to hide behind former governor Charlie Baker’s approval rating. Barely anything, aside from budget items, passed over his veto despite ample margins to shove the Republican aside.
Why take risks with the electorate when you can claim, however dubiously, that he stands in the way?
Uncertainty abounds, too. Mariano has been far more eager for policy than DeLeo. But Mariano first ascended Beacon Hill the same year as his predecessor. Most assume his tenure, which began in December 2020, will be short. Boston Rep and Ways & Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz is his likeliest successor.
This morass did not form overnight, and it will not clear any more quickly. However, leaders can take steps to move past it.
Some of this muck may fade as Healey’s administration continues to take hold. Filling out the ship of state, er commonwealth, has taken time. Normally higher-priority hires have sometimes fallen behind lesser ones as the press identify leftover deadweight and scandals. Once this passes, Healey can start pressing for individual bills.
It will be difficult, if hardly impossible, to resist a governor of the legislature’s party, an advantage Baker did not enjoy. The legislature may have balked at challenging Baker but it had little compunction about waving off his politically fraught asks.
The legislature itself may need to publicly acknowledge that the status quo is not acceptable, too. Putting aside personality conflicts and turf wars, hardly a novel problem for the human species, legislators need to take stock of what is important. Absolute consensus de rigueur is not sustainable. Sparing legislators nearly every possible tough vote is a recipe for disaster. It leaves everybody at risk should the electorate jerk suddenly. This need not be rightward either.
With State Auditor Diana Dizoglio baring down on the body by demanding an audit, legislative leaders have an opportunity to reform and not only confront. It is difficult to see Dizoglio, Mariano or Spilka climbing down from their positions on the audit. Yet, there are other reforms Beacon Hill could take.
When the reform question arises, political reporters and pundits usually lunge for legislators subjecting themselves to the public records act. They should, but that will not deliver the changes that better serve the public.
For years, chin-scratchers have proposed an independent budget and policy shop for the legislature. Now, most bills have little public information available online. What the public can obtain, either online or directly from committee staff, can be complicated and jargon-ridden. Legislative analysis, to the extent it exists, is the work of committee staff chairs hire. On financial matters, the legislature is beholden to the Executive Office of Administration & Finance. It has no separate analysists as Congress and other states have.
For example, Connecticut has both an Office of Legislative Research and an Office of Fiscal Analysis. Were Beacon Hill to create such entities for itself, there would be not just transparency, but independent answers about legislation and spending for citizen and elected alike. Committee and leadership staff could focus on bill-writing and ironing out differences.
With the nation likely to avoid recession and an attendant time of want, an expansion of spending on the legislative branch need not appear decadent. Rather, it could look prudent.
One does not have to press against the furthest left wall of either legislative chamber to understand state government must change with the times. Baker may have been popular, but his laissez-faire, privatizing remove is not. To adapt to these times, bills must move and oversight has to become routine.
If Beacon Hill cannot evolve, then being one of the last states to pass a budget will become only the first embarrassment of many for the commonwealth.