April 2018 Column: The House Budget Process
This week was Budget Week in the House. The Massachusetts House may not operate on a regularized process for passing bills, but the budget process does operate with a defined procedure. Our legislative session runs continuously for a year and a half, but the budget is passed anew every year.
The process starts with the Governor’s proposed budget each January. In February and March, the House Ways and Means committee chair holds individual meetings with every Rep, and with advocacy groups and institutions. The committee releases its proposed budget in early April, and immediately Reps have two days to file amendments.
This year there were 1,400 budget amendments introduced by Reps. Some Reps ask for cosponsors ahead of time, but we can also cosponsor each other’s amendments electronically after they are introduced – your name goes in a different place on the page but there is no other difference. Aside from regular priorities (such as UMass, Craig’s Doors, and PTVA funding), most amendments I cosponsor are requested by constituents.
The week after amendment introduction is “off” for school vacation. The following week is Budget Week. We convene late Monday morning and work until late evening for two to four days until all amendments are dealt with. The Ways and Means committee categorizes every budget amendment into one of about ten categories – education and local aid, agriculture and environment, etc.
First all revenue amendments are adopted or rejected individually – usually on voice votes where Reps don’t really vote but where the presiding member announces that “the ayes have it” or “the no’s have it” which stands as the result unless someone challenges it or asks for a roll call. Amendment outcomes are negotiated between leadership and the sponsor of each amendment, and then votes are called intermittently as a decision is made on each one.
For all non-revenue amendments, one consolidated amendment will be created for each category. To decide what makes it into each consolidated amendment, the Ways and Means chair and staff hold a meeting for each of the topic areas in a room next to the House chamber. Reps interested in that topic come give a ten-second pitch (sometimes as short as “same” to whatever the previous person said) indicating what amendments they are asking to be included. This defined process for Rep input does impact which amendments get incorporated into the consolidated amendment. If more Reps advocate in these meetings for a certain item, it will likely receive slightly higher funding.
After consolidated amendments are written and made available to Reps, we get at least half an hour to review them. If a Rep’s amendment was not funded in the consolidated amendment, they can ask to “remove” it from the consolidated amendment and have it debated separately. It will always fail in that case, because the Ways and Means team already made their decision on that item, but some Reps choose to separate out their amendments in order to make a point about them individually. Sometimes Reps speak in favor of their amendment and then withdraw it, to get some attention to an issue but not force a failed vote.
Each consolidated amendment is approved with a roll call vote. After all have been approved, we pass the final House budget. The Senate undertakes a similar process and passes its version of the budget in late May. A conference committee – three Reps and three Senators – is appointed to negotiate the differences and we pass the compromise version at the end of June. Even then, the Governor is allowed to veto or reduce any individual line item. The legislature usually overrides most or all of the Governor’s vetoes at some point in the following months; the deadline for veto overrides isn’t until the end of the calendar year.
As an advocate, you have several defined points to influence this process. You can advocate with your own legislators to introduce or cosponsor certain amendments. You can also ask them to advocate for certain amendments in those meetings with the Ways and Means chair, either during their individual meeting (though we’re supposed to keep it to three priorities, so we have to say no to most requests for that meeting) or the group meetings during budget week. Organizations and institutions can also reach out to the Ways and Means committee directly. Finally, we can all advocate with the conference committee members to preserve or strengthen our favored items, and we can advocate to override any vetoes the Governor makes.