Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to give themselves and their constituents an end-of-session gift.
The state Senate plans to pass Tuesday a $1.39 billion transportation bond bill that has been loaded with earmarks aimed at forcing the Patrick administration to spend limited funds on specific local projects, rather than the initiatives state transportation officials deem most pressing.
The House tacked project earmarks onto its bill during a marathon session June 20, but the Senate bill scheduled to hit the floor Tuesday will arrive with earmarks added to the legislation during a rewrite by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Earmarks, legislative directives aimed at compelling government to spend on particular projects, fell out of favor on Beacon Hill in recent years because of a backlash against perceived special interest agendas during the recession.
But earmarks are making a comeback in 2012, and the transportation bill stands as the chief example.
The strategy of adding the spending earmarks in committee would seem to eliminate some of the need for earmarks to be added to the bill during floor deliberations, a public and time-consuming effort, although senators filed 85 additional amendments to the bond bill by Monday’s noon deadline.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said last week that he thought Governor Deval Patrick would be willing to accept a heavily earmarked transportation bond bill, despite the fact that Patrick vetoed some earmarked spending in the state budget that he deemed to be for “not recommended” projects.
“I think he’s understanding of the process, that this is a little bit different than the usual situation of earmarks, which, as you know, we’ve limited greatly over the last three years,” DeLeo said.
DeLeo said the transportation bill earmarks differ than those in the budget because Patrick retains authority to spend, or not spend, borrowed money on projects. The annual budget outlines allocations for cash expenses in the operating budget, while bonded projects, if approved by the Legislature, still must be included by the executive branch in long-term capital spending plans. “I think this gives us the ability just to set forth our desires,’’ DeLeo said. “It ultimately will still fall upon the governor to make the decision what projects get done or not done. This just sets forth the will of the individuals members in terms of what projects they would like to get.’’
The bill written by Senate Ways and Means appears to contain some earmarks already approved by the House, though amounts set aside for projects like the Winthrop Street corridor project in DeLeo’s district may differ.
Democrats and Republicans appear to have been successful in winning money for pet projects in their districts. The bill, for example, includes $5.1 million for the reconstruction of roads, sidewalks, and drainage on Taylor Avenue in Plymouth, the hometown of Therese Murray, the Senate president; $2 million for a new Plymouth parking garage; $1.5 million for a water main replacement in Barre, home of Senator Stephen Brewer, the Ways and Means chairman; and $2 million for new sidewalks on Route 127 and Route 133, and around the elementary schools in Gloucester where the Senate’s minority leader, Bruce Tarr, lives.
Patrick’s vetoes of earmarked spending in the budget for programs and projects such as marine fisheries, parks and recreation, housing services, and travel and tourism were mostly overturned in the past few weeks by the Legislature. Patrick explained in documents returned to the House and Senate that the spending was for “programs not recommended.”
The governor filed his own transportation borrowing bill earlier in the year with no mention of specific projects in line for funding, instead directing hundreds of millions of dollars to departments and agencies in charge of maintaining federal and state highway, bridge, and transit systems.