Your Legislature in Inaction
In virtually every state of the union, the new fiscal year began on July 1, and in virtually every state of the union, the legislature passed a budget before the deadline arrived. Only in Massachusetts and Ohio have lawmakers failed to put together a spending bill to fund the government for the next 12 months. The nonfeasance in both cases is egregious — crafting a budget, after all, is the legislature’s most important task.
But the reaction in the two states could hardly be more different.
In Ohio, this is the first time since 2009 that lawmakers have failed to adopt an operating budget on time. The state’s Republican governor and legislative leadership have expressed chagrin and frustration at their failure to get the job done. Leaders of the Democratic minority have excoriated the legislature for a “dereliction of duty that would get most working Ohioans sent to the unemployment line.”
But in Massachusetts, that dereliction of duty is taken for granted. Lawmakers elsewhere may do their jobs, but Beacon Hill can’t be bothered with anything as humdrum as finalizing a budget. This is the ninth year in a row that the Legislature has ignored its obligation to have a budget in place by July 1. The Bay State’s political class couldn’t care less.
Democratic House speaker Robert DeLeo blithely acknowledged on Monday that he and his colleagues are still “haggling” over the budget, then claimed, ludicrously, that they have “a proud history of getting things done.” Equally risible was Senate president Karen Spilka’s assurance that her chamber “has been working diligently since January,” despite the absence of any budget to show for it.
Governor Charlie Baker, a nominal Republican and former corporate executive, might have been expected to take fiscal deadlines more seriously, but he merely shrugs. “I don’t have a problem with the budget being a week or two late,” he told reporters last week. If it ends up being a month or two late, he won’t have a problem with that either. “Some years the budget lands on June 22, some years it lands on July 22, some years it lands on Aug. 22,” he said serenely in 2017. “The commonwealth still manages to find a way to function.”
The commonwealth will also manage to find a way to function if you flout the deadline for filing your state income tax returns, but that won’t shield you from hefty interest charges and late fees. Your insurance company will manage to find a way to function if you fail to pay your homeowner’s or term life premium, but your coverage will still be cancelled. Visa and Discover will manage to find a way to function if you blow off your payment due date by a month or two, but don’t expect your credit score to remain unscathed.
In the real world, there is a price to be paid for disregarding deadlines. But politicians on Beacon Hill operate in a world of make-believe: They pretend to be “working diligently” and voters pretend to believe them.
Paid a handsome salary for being “full-time legislators,” most members of the Massachusetts General Court have no discernible impact on legislation. There are 200 state senators and representatives, but just six of them, meeting secretly as a conference committee, will decide on the makeup of the fiscal 2020 budget. When that budget is finally released, it will be rubber-stamped within a few hours, then sent to Baker for his signature. No lawmaker will bother to read the budget. There will be only a handful of dissenting votes. Like characters aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore, Massachusetts legislators always vote at their party’s call, and never think of thinking for themselves at all.
And virtually every one of them will cruise to reelection next year.
Lawmakers in this state have always been an embarrassment to democratic self-government. “In Massachusetts the worst men get into the Legislature,” Elbridge Gerry told the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the State House was a place where “men of indigence, ignorance, and baseness spare no pains, however dirty, to carry their point.” Now there are women to go along with the men, but otherwise not much has changed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).