By: Rob Eno – May, 2012
After completing work on a $32.5 billion budget, Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) said the budget process was, “the most open and transparent we can have”. The non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, among others, strongly disagrees. They recently gave Massachusetts an F for openness and transparency in our budgeting process.
For those who have spent just one evening in the House Gallery during budget week, would quickly see why we’ve earned that grade. Instead of actually debating the budget, representatives spend their time looking at their iPads, watching Netflix, snacking on soda and candy, and listening to their iPods, as they waited for the next consolidated amendment to become available. The process by which those consolidated amendments are created is particularly un-transparent.
Scurried away in the closed-door Room 348 the Chairman of Ways and Means, Brian Dempsey, holds court on budget amendments. This is where the real work of the budget gets done, beyond public or press inspection.
According to some Freshmen State Representatives, who would prefer to remain anonymous, the process is reminiscent of an audience with Don Corleone. Protocol demands that you praise Chairman Dempsey for his outstanding work on the budget, and to humbly ask him to support your gazebo, state park, budget increase, social program, etc..
After several hours of secret dealing a consolidated amendment comes out. The next step is almost beyond description. The interim Speaker asks the clerk to read the amendment, or more to the point the first two sentences before dispensing with the reading. Then a voice vote is taken and immediately approved. No roll calls, no accountability. It is the rare amendment that gets a hearing on its own, although the rules allow for this.
For his part Chairman Dempsey seems to place a premium on efficiency, telling the press that having “30 or 40 folks interested in talking about an issue” could become “unwieldy”. This is why he prefers doing the work outside the prying eyes of the public. It is said that democracy is sometimes messy and Pam Wilmot of Common Cause agrees.
In 2008 Wilmot told the Eagle Tribune that the room 348 process is blatantly undemocratic. “It’s a shockingly private process to the most important piece of legislation that will be considered this year,” Wilmot said. “The state budget allocates the state’s resources, the public’s resources. It’s absolutely essential it be transparent from soup to nuts.” (http://www.eagletribune.com/local/x1876431585/Statehouse-Secrets-Beacon-Hill-does-its-most-important-business-behind-closed-doors)
For too many on Beacon Hill, including the Speaker, the F they received on transparency means fantastic. It’s about time they realize it means failure. This November you have a chance to remind them, by voting for a representative that values transparency.