Today the Massachusetts Senate begins the arduous process of considering nearly 700 amendments tacked onto the $32 billion state budget — 63 of them put there by North Shore Sens. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Fred Berry, D-Peabody.
The proposals, added to the year's biggest bill, often have little to do with the budget's intended purpose of funding state government. Instead, the amendments tackle everything from pet custody issues to prostitution prevention, the renaming of a boathouse, and all sorts of local causes.
"The reason it happens is the budget is the one bill that is almost guaranteed to pass every year," said Bruce Tarr, the Senate minority leader, who is responsible for 53 amendments. "These amendments are often bills that have been bottled up in committee for months or years. You're trying to advance ideas."
But is this a good way to run a government?
"It isn't the cleanest way of enacting legislation, and it's not our preferred method; but we don't oppose it anymore," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Massachusetts Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog. Sometimes, it's the only way to get things done, she said.
"The legislative process has become so thick and difficult, this is one of the few methods of getting an issue before the body for a vote," Wilmot said. "This is a transparent process, whether it is an ideal way of making a law or not — it probably isn't — but we have to be fairly practical about some of these matters."
The House is a different matter, where the amendments are debated in closed-door sessions and grouped into big chunks for passage, Wilmot said. In the Senate, each amendment is debated openly.
One of Berry's amendments — he tacked 10 onto the budget — would create a North Shore Community College Assistance Corp., a private board working outside of the state or college governance with the purpose of finding and financing the acquisition of more space for the Lynn campus. That legislation was introduced eight years ago and went exactly nowhere.
"But this year, because the problem has become so acute, we tried another route," said Wayne Burton, the college president. "We're really grateful to Sen. Berry for putting this in."
The Lynn campus was built for 1,200 students but currently has about 4,000. Burton is hopeful, but not sure of the amendment's fate.
"I honestly don't know. I'll have to trust the will of the Legislature to make a good decision," he said.
Other amendments Berry filed:
Increased funding for victim and witness assistance.
Creation of a program to increase municipal recycling and reduce trash.
$248,000 in state funds for the financially struggling River House shelter in Beverly.
Money for a safety symposium for direct-service workers, named after Stephanie Moulton, the Peabody social worker who was slain on the job last year.
A direction to the inspector general to review the state's Medicare program.
Many of Tarr's amendments address spending and taxes, and appear to be going nowhere in the Democratically controlled Legislature. So why bother?
"I am trying to articulate themes as well as broader issues," said Tarr, Republican minority leader. "My role in this process is to be looking out for the taxpayers and the cost of government. That perspective has to be represented."
Among Tarr's amendments are ones that would:
Lower the income tax and sales tax to 5 percent.
Create a permanent annual sales tax holiday.
Provide $300,000 to create an office of taxpayer accountability, which would "ensure that the operations of state government are efficient and cost-effective."
Direct the state's Secretary for Administration and Finance to develop a three-year plan to reduce state spending by at least 5 percent.
Require applicants for a driver's license to prove they are in the country legally.
Create a committee to study the state's unemployment claims.
Tarr has also filed an amendment that aims to close a loophole in Melanie's Law that was revealed in a Supreme Judicial Court decision last week. Now, many drunken drivers admit to sufficient facts in return for having their case continued without a finding. If they are arrested a second time, that first case doesn't count as a conviction, and they can't be penalized as a repeat drunken driver.
Tarr's amendment would allow the first case to be considered a conviction.
"If it does not succeed in the budget, we will file a bill," he said. "But this was a matter of public safety, and it will be far more expedient if we get it in the budget — because the budget is going to pass."