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.