Gov. Charlie Baker is looking on the budget bright side. Too bad the rest of us can’t be so good humored about the shape of our state government’s most basic financial document.
On Monday, as the state began a new fiscal year, the nearest thing Beacon Hill had to a formal budget was a $5 billion, one-month spending plan. The actual budget for fiscal 2020 is still in the works somewhere in the recesses of the Statehouse.
So long as he’s pleased with the final result, Baker told reporters Monday, why should he worry if the Legislature is a little slow in its delivery? “I don’t have a problem with the budget being a week or two late. I care a lot more about the quality of the work product,” he said.
The governor’s confidence should be reassuring. The problem for the rest of us — apart from the fact lawmakers blew a deadline — is that we have no way to tell whether it’s warranted.
We know only that big issues vexing the state, such as the formula for supporting local schools or how to fix an old public transportation system, could be hanging up progress on the $43 billion spending plan. Details beyond that are bottled up in a six-member conference committee that’s been meeting in secret to iron out the finer points of different versions of the budget from the House and Senate, and won’t say what, specifically, is taking so long.
This is your state government at work, mind you, not the loan-approval committee of a local bank or the board of directors of a company whose proceedings no one expects to be made public. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, assured reporters the committee is “working in good faith,” according to Statehouse reporter Christian Wade’s account. Again, we can only take DeLeo at his word — the press and public have no way of verifying that statement.
DeLeo and Baker are probably right. There’s no apparent reason to think the committee is not working as hard as it can, as quickly as it can. Once it finishes, the House, Senate and Baker have to sign off on the outcome, barring any vetoes or veto overrides. Best we can tell, there’s little actual harm in the process not being completely buttoned up — apart from the distinction of being one of two states with a fiscal year that starts July 1 that doesn’t have an approved budget in place. Ohio is the other.
The bigger, more frustrating issue is a persistent problem with how stuff works on Beacon Hill, which is to say in secret. Much of the budget drafting process, by tradition, already takes place in rooms closed to the public. There are legislative hearings, of course, but when lawmakers go to the speaker and his lieutenants, hats in hand, to plea for funding for their districts, there’s no press or public audience to witness it. Same goes for this belabored negotiation.
Budgets approved by the House and Senate did not align on how they addressed a proposal from Baker to tamp down costs of prescription drugs, which directly affect how much the state spends on MassHealth, the insurance program for low- and moderate-income families. We assume the committee is hashing out that issue, but again, there’s no way of knowing for sure.
Or maybe they’re in a closed chamber arguing over whether to force the University of Massachusetts to freeze tuition -- or whether to level a tax on vaping pens, as the Senate has suggested. All are matters of public interest and concern, as are most discussions and deals between and among our lawmakers over public issues. But the citizens of Massachusetts aren’t party to any of it. We just await the big reveal at the end.
So, yes, it’s frustrating that our elected representatives can’t get their work done on time. Beyond frustrating is the fact that the people can’t know what’s taking so long or why — no matter hwow the finished product looks.