Needed: a streamlined budget process for Massachusetts

IT just wouldn't be the start of July and a new fiscal year in Massachusetts if a state budget were in place. And 1987 was no exception. But lawmakers did come close to getting the job done before fiscal 1987 ended quietly at the stroke of midnight June 30.

Why the Senate and House cannot seem to get their budget-shaping assignment completed on time is hardly a mystery. Fiscal strategists in the two chambers have very different concepts of what the annual spending program should be.

Invariably the House and Senate will include things they know the other branch will not go along with. These become items to be bargained away when conferees meet.

When both versions of an appropriations package include an item, but there is disagreement in how far to go in spending, not infrequently the conference teams settle on a middleground. That is what happened to cost-of-living adjustments for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and general-relief recipients. The House had approved a 6 percent hike, the Senate favored providing 8 percent. Seven percent was finally agreed on.

The record $10.9 billion budget finally agreed on in the wee hours of July 1 is 10 percent bigger than last year's was. It could have been leaner. But with the commonwealth raking in more revenue than had been anticipated, there is less legislative incentive to pinch pennies.

The budget-crafting process, which begins in January when Gov. Michael Dukakis submits his package of proposals, could be simplified if the inclusion of ``outside sections'' - provisions not tied directly to specific appropriations - was forbidden.

Over the years that vehicle has allowed legislators to put through quite a few major changes in state laws, including some that were never debated. This approach has produced pay raises for legislators and others, created costly programs, and abolished the cabinet-level office of education.

One of this year's compromises allows the continued carryover into the new budget of funds appropriated, but not spent, during the last year. The House supported in principle a recommendation by Governor Dukakis to end this practice. The Senate favored its retention. Conferees agreed to authorize some carryover but canceled the rest and earmarked $78 million for the state's rainy-day fund.

That compromise item is one of 156 so-called outside sections in the fiscal 1988 state blueprint for spending.

Although there are fewer of these special items this year, the device is obviously overworked, and such shortcuts do not make for good government.

But once accepted by legislative conferees, legislators had little choice but to go along, since the alternative would have been to reject the entire budget.

To unclutter the budget and help smooth the approval process, a statute requiring a separate public hearing on new initiatives not in the governor's original draft might be in order. It would make sure that every proposal received adequate attention. And it would be harder to slip something through.

Such restrictions might be accompanied by a requirement that all outside sections be voted on individually in both houses and receive not less than two-thirds support, or more, in each chamber.

While it is questionable whether state legislators would accept such a budget-strengthening law, it is worth consideration. Those who most frequently use the outside section might have to justify this backdoor approach to lawmaking.

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