To some Republicans, the recent Massachusetts House budget deliberations were undemocratic, driven by closed-door meetings and little transparency.
To House GOP leaders, however, they appeared to be a boon.
The top three members of the House’s small Republican caucus together landed close to $1.2 million in local earmarks in their chamber’s budget discussions that wrapped up two weeks ago, pouring money into everything from new crosswalk lights to a senior center to a crab trapping program in their districts and the surrounding communities. They scored these wins while staying notably silent as others outside the Legislature have criticized the budget process for being opaque under House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat.
The budget pork secured by minority leader Bradley Jones and his two top lieutenants, Bradford Hill and Elizabeth A. Poirier, matches, if not exceeds, that of some of the House’s senior Democratic leaders in the $42.7 billion budget bill. And for Jones, the number of earmarks he got included in the budget — 10 — was second only to the House’s education chair, according to InstaTrac, the Boston legislative information service.
Of course, the amendments aren’t law yet. The state Senate is expected to unveil its own spending proposal Tuesday, with debate to follow later this month for a budget covering the fiscal year starting in July.
But the absence of public critique from Republican lawmakers raised concerns for some that a minority caucus once eager to hold Democrats accountable has drifted from that role.
“A key function of the minority party is to maintain the transparency drumbeat,” said Mary Z. Connaughton, a one-time GOP state auditor candidate who now works at the Pioneer Institute. “Without it, any hope of meaningful public engagement in our democratic process is lost. And who is left to turn to?”
James Lyons, chairman of the MassGOP and a former state lawmaker, told the Boston Herald he thought the process was a “joke” that’s played out for years. (Lyons did not return requests for comment for this story.)
“It’s a bipartisan problem,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit. “It’s the game that’s being played right now where everyone is going along with this process.”
No such public criticisms emerged from the House’s 32-member Republican caucus.
Jones argued that Republicans have successfully pushed for changes over the years to improve the transparency of the budget process. But he disagreed with critics that it’s problematic for lawmakers to craft aspects of the budget away from public eyes and ears.
“If the criticism is, ‘Well, it’s not an open and transparent process until the public can hear every single conversation,’ then I guess what we should be doing is removing all the doors in the State House,” he said in an interview.
Now serving his ninth term as minority leader, Jones successfully got $385,000 in local earmarks inserted into the budget after filing more amendments — and having more rejected — than any single lawmaker. That included $50,000 for pedestrian crosswalk lights in Reading and another $60,000 for an elder and human services van in town.
Poirier, the second assistant minority leader, did even better. She successfully pushed for $500,000 for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Bristol County, a Fall River nonprofit that provides free services to children and families affected by abuse or violence throughout Bristol County, which includes her district. Poirier said after several years of requesting that level of funding for the center, this is the first time she got that much.
The budget also included another $100,000 for two other Poirier requests: helping convert a school building into a senior center and funding for a pool in North Attleborough, her hometown.
“Am I going to punish my district by acting out in some way that is going to hurt it? No I’m not going to do that,” Poirier said of criticizing the budget process. “I can wish for and hope for different circumstances, but we all have to work with what we have.”
Hill, the assistant minority leader, got $250,000 in earmarks, including $200,000 toward “public safety improvements” in Hamilton, Wenham, and his hometown of Ipswich, and $50,000 for a green crab trapping program. Aides to Hill did not return requests for comment.
For comparison, Democratic Representatives Paul J. Donato and Michael J. Moran, both second assistant majority leaders under DeLeo, got $475,000 and $425,000, respectively, in earmarks tied directly to their districts. Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia A. Haddad, the House’s third-highest ranking Democrat, got $300,000 in earmarks specifically for programs in Southeastern Massachusetts and Bristol County, which includes her district, according to a Boston Globe review of the budget.
For years, the House has constructed its budget debate by packaging proposals into huge bundles of earmarks and other add-ons known as consolidated amendments, which are cobbled together by committee leaders and staff in a private room.
Once complete, they’re ushered to the House floor, where lawmakers often pass them with scant debate and few, if any, “no” votes. The process, while efficient, means much of the budget action takes place out of public view. House lawmakers filed more than 1,300 amendments to the budget, but they took just 14 recorded votes over four days of House deliberation on the budget, not including procedural tallies to count attendance or extend the debate one evening.
DeLeo has defended the approach, arguing that lawmakers have the option to debate an amendment on the House floor if it’s excluded from a consolidated package. And DeLeo said last week that he heard only positive feedback from other representatives.
“They felt it was one of the best budgets they were involved with,” he said.
Jones said Republicans have, over the years, pushed changes to open the budget process, including requiring that consolidated amendments detail how much they would raise spending. Same goes for time: House rules now require legislators to have at least 30 minutes to consider a consolidated amendment before taking a vote, whereas Republicans used to have to beg for time to review them, said Jones.
This year, Jones offered an amendment to the House rules package to increase the time to consider consolidated amendments to an hour, but it failed on a party line vote. There are 127 Democrats in the House, compared to 32 Republicans and one unenrolled lawmaker.
He said he could get up during the budget debate and demand more time, “but then I’m spending all the time arguing for more time that I could be using to making sure I read through it.”
It wasn’t too long ago House Republicans were eagerly blasting the process. In 2014, a half-dozen GOP lawmakers advocated for a plan that included eliminating the practice of bundling amendments. At the time, Representative Marc T. Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, said it was “time to end the backroom deals.”
Their use, however, is now “embraced by the body as a whole,” he said Friday.
“Our attempts years ago to dissuade that were unsuccessful,” said Lombardo, who got $100,000 in earmarks for the Billerica Boys & Girls Club, a BMX track, and other local programs. “In general, the Republican caucus needs to pick their spots, where we believe we have a better policy approach, and we need to fight for those ideas.”