By votes so lopsided they were practically unanimous, 144-7 in the House and 38-1 in the Senate, the Massachusetts Legislature last week approved a $36.5 billion budget for fiscal 2015, the largest in state history. The puny band of Republicans who voted against the budget — Senator Robert Hedlund and Representatives James Lyons, Leah Cole, Geoff Diehl, Shawn Dooley, Ryan Fattman, Marc Lombardo, and Leonard Mirra — had no hope of changing the outcome. They didn’t even represent a majority of the negligible GOP caucus.
They did, however, take their duties as elected legislators seriously enough to not merely cast a protest vote, but also explain it. None did so more notably than Lyons and Lombardo, who wrote a 1,250-word memo detailing “Why We Voted Against the Budget,” and posted it online. The two representatives, both in their second terms, laid out seven principal — and principled — objections to the budget. Among them:
■ A “precipitous decline in local aid,” which has taken a $400 million hit since 2008;
■ An alarming increase in state spending, and the corresponding surge in the state payroll by more than 10,000 employees under Deval Patrick’s administration;
■ The Democratic leadership’s refusal to consider rolling back the state sales tax rate to the longstanding 5 percent, from which it was hiked in 2009;
■ The administration’s use of public funds on “interference with parental rights,” the Justina Pelletier case being a ghastly recent example.
Lyons and Lombardo, like the six other Republicans who voted against the budget, are avowed fiscal conservatives in a very liberal Legislature. They know their views on state policy are shared by few if any of their Democratic colleagues. Even other Republicans don’t see eye to eye with them on some key issues. On the phone the other day, Lombardo witheringly described some members of the GOP caucus as acting “like rank-and-file Democrats: They give Speaker DeLeo their vote on the big things in exchange for getting a gazebo in their district.”
But whether you agree with the Republican dissenters or not, their commitment to candid and substantive debate is refreshing. In a political culture as overwhelmingly monopartisan as Beacon Hill, dissent can be risky. Almost everything important is decided behind closed doors, then gaveled to passage on the floor in pro forma voice votes whose outcome is rarely in doubt.
“If rank-and-file lawmakers won’t resist the smothering of open democracy that has become the norm on Beacon Hill, nobody else will do it for them,” the Globe editorialized in 2012. But resistance can seem futile when one party controls every lever of state power and literally sets the terms of debate. When the House took up the fiscal 2015 budget this spring, it operated under procedural rules that barred members from proposing any changes in welfare reform, local aid, or education funding — which add up to more than one-fourth of the state’s expenditures. In such an atmosphere, the value of a minority prepared to march to the beat of its own drummer, and to explain why and where they are marching, can’t be overstated.
Two-party competition doesn’t guarantee more thoughtful or productive lawmaking. (See under: Congress.) With one-party rule, however, abuse, secrecy, and lockstep obedience are foreordained. The state’s new budget, which runs to hundreds of pages, wasn’t finalized and provided to legislators until late Sunday night; they were expected to vote on it the next day. But as one Democrat confessed , they weren’t necessarily expected to know what was in it.
“When someone asks me, have I read the 500 pages that came out this morning? — I printed them off, I’m glancing through them,” Representative Denise Andrews of Orange said, according to State House News Service. “But I haven’t read it, and I won’t, because I believe in the process that we’re engaged in. I came in three years ago and have witnessed nothing but excellence and fiscal management from the chairman of Ways and Means and his team.”
Lyons and Lombardo, who also entered the Legislature three years ago, take a very different view of their responsibilities. “We need a vigorous clash of ideas about how tax dollars should be spent,” says Lyons, a former Democrat. “A small group of us are determined to promote a fiscally conservative philosophy, and we think if we promote it openly, the support will build.”
You don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to appreciate that attitude — just a citizen who understands that democratic self-rule wasn’t made for unquestioning sheep, and wants a state government that understands it too.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.