Help Wanted: Two seasoned legislators, well-versed in handling thorny policy and funding debates. Long hours required. Must have the trust of chamber leaders. Women encouraged to apply.
The leaders of the Massachusetts House and Senate budget committees are among Beacon Hill’s most powerful figures, and in a rare confluence of events, both jobs are wide open as the new legislative session, which begins in January, draws near.
The uncertainty is injecting a level of intrigue into a normally sleepy stretch at the State House, where lightly attended informal sessions dot the calendar. The selections that will soon be made by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka — both former Ways and Means chairs themselves — could shape the building’s power dynamics for years to come.
“Ways and Means chair is the primary author of the budget. That role carries a yeoman’s responsibility,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog. “The chair does have to carry out the wishes of the members and the leadership, but they absolutely have an impact and an influence.”
Wielding control over the $41 billion state budget is also a prized stepping stone for the politically ambitious: The Ways and Means leaders attract piles of campaign donations from lobbyists and other interests looking to gain influence, and they gain a platform that can help lift them toward the top positions in the State House.
Yet somewhat unexpectedly, neither of the current budget leaders is returning, and neither has a clear successor.
Spilka, who started last session as the Senate’s budget chief, rose to the chamber’s presidency in July, after Stanley C. Rosenberg’s resignation, corralling the votes to take the gavel from Senator Harriette L. Chandler, who had replaced Rosenberg on an interim basis.
Meanwhile, DeLeo, who is likely to retain the speakership he’s held since 2009, will have to pick his second budget chief in 18 months. The current chairman, Jeffrey Sánchez — the Jamaica Plain Democrat tapped in July 2017 after longtime chair Brian S. Dempsey decamped for a top lobbying firm — was ousted in a Democratic primary by Nika Elugardo in September.
DeLeo has no shortage of potential choices. Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Alice H. Peisch, the Wellesley Democrat who chairs the Committee on Education, and Aaron Michlewitz, the North End Democrat and chair of the Committee on Financial Services, are all viewed as potential budget czars.
Other potential candidates getting some buzz include Representatives Patricia A. Haddad, who as speaker pro tempore is the House’s third-ranking member, Jennifer E. Benson, a Lunenburg Democrat who heads the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, and Claire D. Cronin, who won plaudits with her Senate counterpart for guiding a sweeping criminal justice bill to passage as House chair of the Committee on the Judiciary.
“It’s going to be someone who works well with the speaker, someone the speaker has a lot of trust in,” said majority leader Ronald Mariano, a close DeLeo ally and the House’s number two official. “The speaker and the chairman have to have a close working relationship. It’s not going to work if they don’t.”
But DeLeo could face other pressures. In the Senate, multiple women have led the budget committee, but only men have held the post in the House. Some, including within DeLeo’s leadership team, say a woman could bring valuable perspective at a time when the ranks of female lawmakers are swelling on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.
“It’s certainly high time that the House had a woman as chair of Ways and Means,” said Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who cochaired the House Progressive Caucus this past session. The Pittsfield Democrat stressed the need for a budget chief to bring in a variety of voices when making decisions. “It’s been my experience, since I’ve become a legislator, that women tend to do that more.”
Peisch said she’d gladly take any role DeLeo believes she’s “best suited for.” Haddad, of Somerset, said she would, too.
“We have a lot of capable people,” she said. “We have a lot of capable women.”
In the Senate, Spilka has been meeting with senators to gauge their preferences in committee assignments. Some are openly expressing interest in being budget chief, including Senator Joan B. Lovely, the budget committee’s vice chair and currently its highest-ranking member.
“I’m very interested,” Lovely said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I feel prepared to go into the position, but again, it’s the president’s decision.”
Senator William N. Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, is also viewed as a potential choice, as are Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and Michael J. Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who led the Senate’s Committee on Ethics during its high-profile investigation of Rosenberg this session.
“She’ll have a number of good options before her,” Brownsberger, of Belmont, said of Spilka. “I don’t think any promises have been made to anybody. We’ll see what she feels is the best way to assemble her team.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.