The debate over a proposed shift in homeless policy was debated and settled behind closed doors at the State House, among a select few powerful dealmakers.
So was a debate over collective bargaining for municipal employees. And proposed immigration crackdown measures.
And so was just about everything else in the new $30.6 billion state budget, an ostensibly public document that disburses public resources but is the end result of a remarkably private process.
This is what happens this time each year when Beacon Hill’s top leaders finalize the budget, the most far-reaching and consequential piece of business before state lawmakers, the annual expression in dollars and cents of the state’s values and priorities.
The budget process begins with the pretense of openness and a series of public hearings and legislative debate, but it gets taken inside with a series of private budget negotiations featuring an unknown cast that presumably includes lobbyists, lawmakers and administration officials — the public has no way of knowing for sure, since meetings aren’t advertised and public records aren’t kept — and finally, the closed-door proceedings of a legislative conference committee. The final product emerges for a rubberstamp vote without public debate or explanation.
We know all about the wrongs that can happen when the light of public scrutiny isn’t allowed to shine on State House affairs. We know from what Sal DiMasi said and did in the secrecy of the House Speaker’s office, now a gateway to federal prosecution, that corrupt deals can be made in the guise of public business. DiMasi’s predecessor, Tom Finneran, gerrymandered legislative districts in the privacy of his public office, and later lied about it in court. Finneran’s predecessor, Charlie Flaherty, was also driven from office by federal investigators for tax evasion.
Three successive convicted felons for House speakers, and yet they can each expect a warm welcome including applause any time they return to the State House for ceremonial functions. And the powers that be, including DiMasi’s hand-picked successor, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Terry Murray, and Gov. Deval Patrick, continue to pretend that a more open model of government isn’t needed.
Another kind of insider loyalty was on display when we saw a gleeful-looking Billy Bulger, unapologetic about everything from his bloated $200,000-a-year state pension to his brother Whitey’s run from the law, rush into federal court recently. The former Senate President’s disdainful brushoff of the media brought home the smugness and insularity of Massachusetts public officialdom and its frequent failure to demonstrate moral leadership.
How threatened are the powers that be when someone suggests, say, that special interest lobbyists wear name tags while working the State House, one of several ethics reforms proposed in the wake of DiMasi’s conviction for taking kickbacks? A state representative from Worcester, John Binienda, who heads the House Rules Committee, summoned up images of Nazi Germany.
“The idea of the badge by lobbyists to me, I kind of find that revolting,” Binienda told the State House News Service. “Hitler during the concentration camps tattooed all of the Jewish people so he would
know who was a Jew and who wasn’t, and that’s something that I just
don’t go along with.”
Binienda later apologized for his offensive remark, but the status quo remains intact. When he was trying to impress us as a newly elected governor, Deval Patrick used to remind the public that the State House is a public building. “I will be calling on you each one of you to stay engaged, to bring forward your solutions, not just your problems, to suggest a better way, to keep your eye on the higher ground we seek, and to act like this State House is your house,” reads the transcript of Patrick’s first
Here’s one solution, governor: make all budget proceedings open to the public and a matter of public record, instead of allowing the public to be locked out of its own house at budget time.