State Representative Russell Holmes was wowed in February as he toured a Boston nonprofit that helps low-income students graduate from college.
So the Mattapan Democrat in March privately urged the chairman of the House budget-writing panel to set aside $300,000 for the group, Bottom Line.
Yet when House leaders released their draft spending plan in April, the Bottom Line money was not there.
Holmes kept trying, publicly and privately, and eventually defeat turned into success, highlighting how millions of taxpayer dollars for legislators’ pet projects were written into the $38.1 billion House budget that unanimously passed the Democrat-controlled chamber last week.
After the spending proposal did not include money for Bottom Line, Holmes filed an amendment to add the funding to the budget. There was no public hearing on it. The organization’s merits were never discussed on the chamber’s floor.
But to his delight, $50,000 for the group was still approved after Holmes attended high-stakes meetings in a State House room hidden from public view, just off the House of Representatives’ chamber.
While it may not be how a civics textbook describes democracy, it’s a process Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and the budget chairman, Haverhill Democrat Brian S. Dempsey, say strikes the right balance between transparency and deliberative speed.
Dempsey said legislators hold several public hearings across the state as they prepare the budget. He and his staff welcome almost all state representatives in individual meetings earlier in the year to hear about what is important to them.
He also said budget documents are available to the public online, and he points out that there is debate of some amendments on the House floor.
Yet the vast majority of amendments are not debated on the floor, in public view. Rather, representatives pitch them to Dempsey in nonpublic meetings in State House Room 348. Pet causes can have a better shot if they have support from several, or dozens, of representatives.
Tom Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat who is the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, also had an amendment for funding Bottom Line, and he said he spoke with Dempsey about getting the group money after one of the Room 348 meetings.
In those meetings, Dempsey rarely tips his hand.
Still, it’s clear whose items have made it and whose have not when the budget-writing committee files “consolidated amendments.”
The process from backroom meeting to the large “consolidated amendments” is something of a mystery, according to some rank-and-file representatives.
Eventually, “out spits a consolidated amendment,” explained one Democratic representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “to avoid trouble.”
Representatives whose priorities did not make the cut can choose to bring their own amendments to the floor for debate and a public vote. Dempsey said there was no risk of punishment if a member insisted on a vote. But very few did this year.
All the consolidated amendments were passed unanimously, with little debate.
The Senate is set to propose and pass its own budget this month, which will be reconciled with the House’s spending plan and then sent to the governor. So because an earmark made it in the House budget doesn’t necessarily mean it will become law. The budget is for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
While several House legislators said the process works for them, the opacity rankles advocates.
“It’s very frustrating for advocates to find, increasingly, that deals around amendments are made without any public debate in the privacy of a room where consolidated amendments are drafted,” said one veteran lobbyist, who demanded anonymity to avoid antagonizing House leadership.
In a telephone interview, Dempsey defended the way things work. He emphasized the process in the chamber is seen by the public.
But, he said, “I think conversations certainly that are adjacent to the chamber certainly may not be seen, but again, that’s really the role of the legislator who is representing the public on behalf of their respective districts. And I think that they’re their voice. They’re the voice of their districts and there to represent those needs.”
Dempsey, who has been Ways and Means chairman since 2011, said in the past legislators often crowded the chamber’s floor having the conversations that are now held behind closed doors.
He indicated it was a chaotic process. Now, he said, “we basically just move into another area near the chamber that allows for an easier flow of communication.”
And he said the decisions about which items make the cut and are put into each consolidated amendment are based on a number of factors, from what House members have said is important to analysis from his staff to the constraints of how much spending the budget allows.
In an e-mail, a DeLeo spokesman said the speaker believes the House budget process is the best way for the chamber to determine how to spend taxpayer dollars.
Holmes, the Mattapan lawmaker, said that the process, despite being “out of the limelight,” works in general and for his constituents. He said he and his 159 House colleagues serve as the first filter, choosing priorities among the multitude of groups that reach out to all of them.
For him, one of those groups this year was Bottom Line.
Mike Wasserman, Massachusetts executive director at Bottom Line, said the 18-year-old organization is working with about 2,600 Massachusetts students. Through on-campus mentorship, he explained, it helps mostly first-in-their-family college students navigate the world of higher education to a diploma.
The group, he said, is aiming to expand how many students it can help and while it did not attend any hearings, it reached out to some legislators this year to tell them about its efforts.
Wasserman said the group has never gotten funding written into the state budget.
In an interview, Holmes described telling Dempsey his priorities for the budget, which included Bottom Line, an organization that helps some of Holmes’s own constituents.
In interactions with the chairman, he said he kept a laser focus on the spending requests.
He attended a number of the meetings in Room 348, including one that focused on education amendments.
When the consolidated amendment on education came out, there was $50,000 for Bottom Line.
“It was,” Holmes said with a wide smile, “good to see it.”