By Jesse Roman
The Massachusetts Senate began the arduous process Wednesday of considering nearly 700 amendments tacked onto the $32 billion state budget — more than 50 of them put there by Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester.
State budget amendments, added to the year's biggest bill, often have little to do with the budget's intended purpose of funding state government. Instead, the amendments tackle everything from pet custody issues to prostitution prevention, the renaming of a boathouse, and all sorts of local causes.
"The reason it happens is the budget is the one bill that is almost guaranteed to pass every year," said Tarr, who is responsible for 53 amendments. "These amendments are often bills that have been bottled up in committee for months or years. You're trying to advance ideas."
Is this a good way to run a government?
"It isn't the cleanest way of enacting legislation, and it's not our preferred method; but we don't oppose it anymore," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Massachusetts Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog. Sometimes, it's the only way to get things done, she said.
"The legislative process has become so thick and difficult, this is one of the few methods of getting an issue before the body for a vote," Wilmot said. "This is a transparent process, whether it is an ideal way of making a law or not — it probably isn't — but we have to be fairly practical about some of these matters."
The House is a different matter, where the amendments are debated in closed-door sessions and grouped into big chunks for passage, Wilmot said. In the Senate, each amendment is debated openly.
Many of Tarr's amendments address spending and taxes — and may go nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. So why bother?
"I am trying to articulate themes as well as broader issues," said Tarr. "My role in this process is to be looking out for the taxpayers and the cost of government. That perspective has to be represented."
Among Tarr's amendments are ones that would:
Lower the income tax and sales tax to 5 percent.
Create a permanent annual sales tax holiday.
Provide $300,000 to create an office of taxpayer accountability, which would "ensure that the operations of state government are efficient and cost-effective."
Direct the state's Secretary for Administration and Finance to develop a three-year plan to reduce state spending by at least 5 percent.
Require applicants for a driver's license to prove they are in the country legally.
Create a committee to study the state's unemployment claims.
Tarr has also filed an amendment that aims to close a loophole in Melanie's Law that was revealed in a Supreme Judicial Court decision last week. Now, many drunken drivers admit to sufficient facts in return for having their case continued without a finding. If they are arrested a second time, that first case doesn't count as a conviction, and they can't be penalized as a repeat drunken driver.
Tarr's amendment would allow the first case to be considered a conviction.
"If it does not succeed in the budget, we will file a bill," he said. "But this was a matter of public safety, and it will be far more expedient if we get it in the budget — because the budget is going to pass."
Jesse Roman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.