Editorial: Secrecy in budgeting

The MetroWest Daily News

The state Legislature's most important job is passing a budget. This year, that means deciding how to spend about $28 billion on schools, roads, prisons, health care, social services and a host of other things near and dear to the legislators' constituents.

So how is that process going? Running late, which is not uncommon. The fiscal year began yesterday without a budget in place, but there were signs it might surface at any minute.

What's been the hang-up? They won't tell us.

The Legislature's most important work, unfortunately, is done mostly in secret. When the House Ways & Means Committee was putting its version of the budget together, members were invited to present their proposed amendments in private sessions in a special room just off the House floor. Asked about the practice, one House leader explained that "members like it that way." Elected reps presumably would rather wheel and deal behind closed doors than stand up and present their ideas and priorities to the people who elected them.

The Senate, a smaller, more collegial body, is equally opaque. And the conference committee, where three members from each body have spent weeks trying to reconcile the two budgets, does its best to keep everybody in the dark - rank-and-file members as well as the public.

If the past is any guide, once the conference committee issues its budget, it will be quickly adopted by both bodies, with little debate and no opportunity to amend. Often, the final budget is approved before members have time to actually read what's in it.

The closed-door deliberations would be of particular interest to those whose businesses pay state corporate taxes, since the budgets differ on closing loopholes for some companies and lowering the corporate tax rate for all. Conferees are also wrestling over funding for the state's healthcare law and countless earmarks of interest to individual legislators and their constituents.

But decision-making should be of interest to every Bay State resident. That $28 billion came from us, after all, and is being spent on our government in our name. Missing the deadline for getting a budget enacted is unfortunate, but no lasting harm will be done if the delay is no more than a few weeks. But secrecy in the budgeting process is unjustifiable - there are no national security secrets hidden in the state budget, after all - and corrosive to the political process.

Actually, passing a budget is just part of the Legislature's most important job. Its most important job is to represent the people who elected them and steward their state - and their tax money - wisely. Neither civic engagement nor accountability are served when vital decisions are made in private.