Only compared to the House's budget debate quickie could the Senate's three days of debate seem like cautious deliberation, but that's how things roll on Beacon Hill--like a car with square wheels. Senators filed 1,031 amendments in all, or roughly 26 amendments per. The leadership created three back-room bundles of consolidated amendments out of some of the 1,031 and then called for only 32 recorded roll call votes. Last year's number, 48, starts looking awfully transparent. But here’s the kicker: of those 32 recorded votes, all but one were unanimous. Outside of unanimous roll call votes, leadership used countless unanimous voice votes to consume the day. Unanimous votes say a couple of things to Senate watchers. First, a unanimous vote on an omnibus package containing perhaps dozens of amendments means there's been a lot of horse trading. The amendment stew has been sweetened with enough porky perks to entice every single member to vote yes. And all that sweetness is added behind the scenes, because nobody wants the voters to know what they're really voting for. Second, a unanimous vote provides cover. When the rancid meat the sweetener was added to cover comes to light, all a Senator need say to explain is "everybody did it." You know, that excuse your mother never let you get away with. Lastly, unanimous votes are puzzling. Surely the major parties have important and distinct views on policy. If the dogs and ponies are alike, why bother hosting the show? The Senate President even added a bit of a twist to this game. Earlier this year, the Senate voted for a rule requiring them to take recorded roll call votes on all consolidated budget amendments. It wasn't much of a reform, but it was something. A consolidated amendment can represent scores of individual items, and passing them through the process with a nod and a wink seemed pretty cheeky even to this bunch. But a little thing like a rule ensuring a small measure of accountability didn't stop the Leadership from hiding a failure. When it appeared one of the consolidated amendments wasn’t going to pass, Leadership pulled it. Rather than have a record of who voted against the package, the 75 amendments were unbundled and passed along via a voice vote. When all the shenanigans were done, the total for the Senate Budget came in at $40.39B as they added roughly $50.67M in spending during debate. However, left underfundedwas $180.7M in obligations. In a state where the law requires the annual budget to balance, this is dirty dealing. The Senate Budget handed Governor Baker a black hat for the next episode. He'll have to make tough 9C cuts in order to keep the state’s basic services going.Worst of all, from our perspective, an amendment filed to put another road block in place at the MBTA passed unanimously. Legislative memories are short (apparently, even those of the pachyderms). Commuters, however, haven't forgotten the abysmal train service before Governor Baker took the reins of the runaway Transit Authority. With last night's vote, the Senate made the first move toward de-railing all that good work. If you rely on public transportation, save your pennies. You'll need fur-lined boots and a warm wool coat for the long, cold morning wait once the Beacon Hill Power Brokers put the Union Bosses and their lust for perks back in the driver’s seat.read moreSenate budget debate starts tomorrow, and our researchers are getting a good picture of what sorts of amendments the upper chamber will be discussing.Most interesting among them may be an amendment aimed at thwarting further reforms via privatization at the MBTA. The short passage reads like mumbo-jumbo. In essence, the amendment puts more road blocks in place of privatization as the clock is running out on the moratorium of the anti-privatization law. The suspension of the Pacheco law has meant big savings for T riders and taxpayers, and nothing makes the Union Bosses more red in the face than better service at a lower cost. A timely amendment offered by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) would create an 11-member commission to examine the state of the MBTA pension fund. Just today, according to The Globe, Brian Shortsleeve, the MBTA’s acting general manager informed the Fiscal Control Board the MBTA pension fund needs $1 billion or it'll go bust in less than 20 years. Things are upside down at the Transit Authority, with 5,786 employees and 6,685 pensioneers. Something has got to give there, and while we're not generally fans of Study Committees, Tarr's amendment might just start an overdue conversation about stopping that runaway train before it's too late. Tarr also put in for amendments establishing a MassHealth Cost Containment Council and investigating waivers from the Affordable Care Act. Both attempt to cut down our out-of-control MassHealth spending. There were a few other glimmers of good in the pile of amendments, including allowing short-term rentals a pass on the impending AirBnB tax; establishing a sales tax holiday; and prohibiting the purchase of marijuana with state welfare grants (EBT cards).And of course, a few last-minute requests for nickel-and-dime pork turned up. Among them: a study of needed improvements to Westwood's town hall, $100,000. Another $88K for a ceremonial militia, $75K for a regatta, and almost $325K for the Division of Ecological Restoration. And another $300K for climate change preparedness.Everybody agrees these small requests for local project money is bad business. Still, you can't expect the Legislature to give them up cold turkey, even in the face of a growing budget deficit.read more
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