There are 203 outside sections in the Legislature’s new budget — that’s a lot of clutter in a spending document.
What are outside sections, you ask? Basically, separate pieces of legislation that are crammed into the budget as a way of bypassing the usual legislative process. Sometimes they are small and inconsequential; other times, they can be large and high impact.
Because legislation passed via that route largely avoids scrutiny that comes with time, hearings, and debate in both chambers, good-government types object to legislating by outside section. Those budget riders never completely disappear, however. And certainly not this year. By the Senate’s own count, it had 266 such sections its budget, while the House had 153. The House tally has it as 270 for the Senate, 110 for the House.
As those rival tallies demonstrate, the two chambers can’t even agree on the count. But this much is clear: Here, the Senate’s process performance has been considerably worse.
This year, the Senate’s outside sections called for things like a commission to look at the oversight of home care services, a feasibility study of a 24-hour health-advice phone line, the establishment of a digital health internship program, and a plastic bag ban. Whatever one thinks of the merits of those proposals, they don’t belong in the budget.
To his credit, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg is trying to breathe new democratic life into a body that, for far too long, has been a top-down enterprise. And much of that effort is laudable. He has certainly made the Senate a place where the average senator has more say and can take more initiative.
That number of outside sections, however, demonstrates a lack of leadership willpower. The Senate’s defense is three-pronged. There are substantially fewer outside sections than in the last year of President Therese Murray’s tenure. That’s true, but hardly a strong defense, given that she had allowed a whopping 394. Second, sometimes outside sections are worthwhile, as with the Senate’s plan last year to increase the earned-income tax credit and to free the MBTA from the competition-curbing Pacheco law. Those are fair points, but that doesn’t justify 266 such sections. Or even half that number.
And, finally, the Senate needs to use outside sections because it can’t otherwise get the House to consider its priorities. Actually, the House has moved to accommodate the Senate on releasing more bills from joint committees in a timely way, so that really isn’t a particularly persuasive argument.
Rosenberg and his top leadership team should have said “no” to many more of these riders. Instead, they let them become part of the Senate budget on the theory that many of them would be killed by the conference committee.
Many of them were. Governor Charlie Baker will have a chance to pare them down further when he acts on the budget. Still, both chambers need to do better next year, and the Senate, in particular, needs to show more self-discipline.