Analysis: Finding Balance to the East in that City on a Hill…
On January 7 when Representatives-elect Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Tosado and Senator-elect Eric Lesser formally join the Massachusetts legislature, a lot of pomp and circumstance and celebration will be the order of the day. The next day, perhaps after locating legislator hangouts 21st Amendment and Carrie Nation, the real work of governing begins. Like generations of their predecessors, they will face a dilemma of sorts: balancing and prioritizing the sometimes competing and sometimes complimenting goals of securing funds from the budget and enacting policy.
The budget process will begin not long after the legislature and Governor-elect Charlie Baker are sworn in. Whether Democrat or Republican, gubernatorial budget are reviewed and analyzed before being given a place of honor on a shelf and forgotten. The House and Senate Ways & Means committees will write the meat of what will become the final budget, wherein the goodies newcomers hope to yield will most likely be inserted.
Technically, the budget is just another bill, albeit one that must pass lest the commonwealth’s government shut down. A Democratic supermajority ensures Bakers’ concurrence will be unnecessary, but neither he nor the legislature are likely to provoke a confrontation right out of the gate.
The three new legislators form Western Mass, like their counterparts elsewhere in the commonwealth all made campaign promises that is some way will need money. Tosado spoke of more cops on the beat in Springfield. Gonzalez wanted to expand summer youth programs. Lesser seeks an expansion of rail service between the capital and Springfield.
However, the political capital birthed from budget lines may not be enough to accomplish legislators’ goals. Changes to municipal law, perhaps as it pertains to personnel could help Springfield bolster its police ranks. Perhaps changing the eligibility requirements of youth programs could get more kids involved. The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act will figure prominently in any effort to bring the old Boston & Albany right-of-way up to a state of good repair.
Countless other issues from the opiate crisis to the homeless in hotels to criminal justice reform either have both a financial and legal dimension or consist mostly of the latter. How and where incoming put their focus could affect their success as members of legislature.
New reps may gravitate toward the budgetary dimension simply because the structure of the House makes an alternative path difficult, but hardly impossible. Freshmen like Gonzalez and Tosado will be quite low in seniority and, whatever their committee assignments, will have little impact on what bills actually get pushed through.
Part of this is a consequence of the House’s size (160 members), but in recent decades, House leadership has tended to zealously dominate the funnel through which virtually all floor and committee action happens. It is not that reps’ voices are silenced, but even if leadership is not standing in a rep’s way, corralling colleagues—a difficult task when most reps only have a single legislative aide for staff—will be that rep’s responsibility, not leadership’s.
The budget is a lot easier for reps to break through. Spending bills, the budget in particular, are usually must-pass. In other words, once you get your priority into the budget, either through Ways & Means or by amendment on the floor, its only other obstacles is surviving conference or—more rarely—gubernatorial veto. Leadership also appears to encourage reps to seek a piece of the pie, to help members prove to constituents they are not merely bums in need of throwing out.
The problem is that relying on this alone may diminish the representation. A rep (or less often a senator) risks mortgaging their vote on countless other issues to keep the earmark tap flowing. Leadership can pressure members whenever, but the strength of that pressure may bear some relation to a rep’s reliance on the budget. House & Senate leadership, in effect, control the annual spending plan through the Ways & Means Committees they appoint.
The Senate differs a bit from the House, though. Former reps who move on the senate largely agree that both dissent and non-leadership priorities are often tolerated—even embraced—in the 40 member chamber. Senators also have a much larger staff. A rep might have a legislative director, counsel or some other staffer managing legislative priorities. Most do not. Virtually all senators—both vets and newbies like Lesser, Anne Gobi and Barbara L’Italien further east—have or will have one.
An employee whose sole raison d’etre is monitoring bills and strategizing how to put senators’ objectives into law provides a tremendous boost. It is partly responsible for the expectation that—and opportunity for—members of Beacon Hill’s upper chamber delve deeply into policy.
This is not the say that Gonzalez and Tosado, who will almost certainly have only one staffer to start, cannot pursue a policy path if they want. Rep. Aaron Vega, heading into his sophomore term representing Holyoke, took full advantage of the window file legislation on a diversity of topics and developed relationships with like-minded colleagues to get some of these traction.
Nor is focusing on the budget necessarily a vice. It may be the most effective way to have an impact especially within a limited window. John Velis, who joined the House in April representing Westfield after a special election, entered during the FY15’s budget process. The opportunity to file bills had long since passed by then, but he was able to deliver funds for Westfield, the likes of which the city had not seen in some time. Even so, Velis has had no qualms with breaking from leadership, nor did leaders yank the chain. Some legislators like Velis will get more latitude than others for a host of reasons.
Still that path fit well for Velis, who sold himself as a Westfield advocate first and foremost determined to get the city get more out of Boston. While any good rep or senator will be that for their district too, some may focus on a specific issue or policy ambitions that transcend geography.
The newcomers will have two years to prioritize these competing and yet complementing avenues of legislative maneuvering. The path they choose may depend on what they want to get out of Beacon Hill whether funds or policy. Some combination, whatever the endgame, will be necessary, but finding the successful mix will be the work of statecraft, something that may take longer than a term—or five.