State lawmakers are maintaining bigger expense accounts for themselves while slashing funds
for government watchdog agencies like the Ethics Commission and the Inspector General's
office, angering critics who call the move a poke in the eye to the public.
House and Senate leaders barely touched their administrative accounts when they pushed
through approved cuts to the fiscal 2002 budget last week. They did, however, cut the
Inspector General's funding by 21 percent and whack the Ethics Commission
by 4 percent. Those cuts will save the state about $550,000 this year; the legislators' expense account
boost, which was first approved last year, costs the state $720,000 annually.
"It's becoming almost a game to see what new outrage the Legislature can perpetrate without
being stopped," said Ken White, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. "The
Legislature seems to be daring someone to stop them. It's as if they've tried to cram as many
bad things as they could into this year, while doing virtually nothing good."
Acting Governor Jane Swift said she may veto some of the money the Legislature has set
aside for itself. The Legislature's $22.6 billion budget, she said, is more than $100
million out of balance and makes painful cuts to human services and aid to cities and towns, while not
touching lawmakers' expense accounts. She said the budget did not account for $457
million worth of obligations -- including tens of millions of dollars that have already been spent. The
Legislature built in only $325 million to pay for overruns or unanticipated
expenses, she said. "The fact that the Legislature's budget seems to be held harmless when we had cuts to local
aid -- to a lot of programs that would not have been cut, that I would have
sought to implement -- is one of the things that we'll review," Swift said.
Swift's remarks yesterday came as legislative leaders drew more criticism over a budget
process that dragged out over nearly five months, shut out many rank-and-file members, and
resulted in cuts to a range of agencies including human services.
Lawmakers decided to keep intact the $7,200 allotted to each of them for "office expenses"
-- which can pay for anything from food for their staffs to supplementing rent on a district
office. That allowance, which they doubled last summer, can either be spent or pocketed by
senators and representatives, who do not have to disclose what they do with the money.
Ironically, the raise was intended to ease legislators' adjustment to the Clean Elections
system. Paul Haley, the former House Ways and Means chairman, said last year that the
extra cash was needed because Clean Elections restrictions would force lawmakers to cut
back on district expenses like mailings and office rent.
But House and Senate leaders have essentially killed Clean Elections by refusing to fund it in
the budget. Still, they kept the extra money for themselves.
"It's part of the hypocrisy that abounds in this building," said gubernatorial candidate Warren
E. Tolman, who is hoping the Supreme Judicial Court will order the Legislature to
provide money for Clean Elections, so he can run under the system. "The Legislature just did as it
Haley has since left the Legislature and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran declined
comment yesterday. Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham did not vigorously defend the
move, saying the doubled expense account "was the House's idea" that was
passed because of the "political reality" that so many lawmakers wanted extra expense money.
Though he did not speak out against it at the time, Birmingham said yesterday he disagreed
with House leaders who justified the increase in expense money as a way to prepare for
Clean Elections. Many lawmakers said they needed the additional money so they could
provide adequate services to their constituents, he said.
"I never embraced the House rationale," Birmingham said. "The argument was that it would
help senators do their jobs better."
Birmingham noted that neither the House nor the Senate is increasing its budget. Although
their total administrative budget is approximately the same as last year, they have
shuffled where some of the money is headed. But some Beacon Hill observers fear the cuts to
anticorruption agencies will significantly weaken the government watchdogs. The cuts at the
inspector general's office will mean that 10 existing job vacancies will not be filled and
another job or two may also be eliminated, said Greg Sullivan, the interim inspector general.
He noted the now 33-person office is still conducting a full load of investigations.
The Ethics Commission will have to shed one of its six slots for lawyers, said Peter
Sturges, the commission's executive director. Investigations should be be unaffected, he said.
While leaving its budget intact, the Legislature's spending plan trims $100,000 from funding
for the executive budget, which covers salaries, supplies, and travel expenses for the
governor's office. That $5.55 million provided for the governor is actually $150,000 more
than Swift recommended last week. Swift will not announce what sections of the budget she
will veto until later this week.
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The Boston Herald
Tuesday, November 27, 2001
As the hastily completed Thanksgiving Eve budget was finally digested yesterday,
accusations were flying as acting Gov. Jane M. Swift blasted lawmakers for cutting "legally
unavoidable" items, and Senate leaders tagged the administration as "incompetent."
Swift said the $22.25 billion budget shortchanges $457 million in legally mandated programs,
and only includes $325 million in offsetting revenues.
That means the budget spends roughly $130 million more than the state can afford, Swift
said. The state constitution requires the annual spending plan to be balanced.
"It is the responsibility and the right of the Legislature to make the laws," Swift said. "They
cannot, however, break the laws."
The Legislature also cut programs for which money has already been spent, like $3.3 million
for summer jobs programs, Swift said.
Senate President Thomas Birmingham said he doesn't believe the administration's math. He
accused Swift of fiscal gimmickry in her recently proposed "recovery" budget, which came in
at $22.8 billion. "The incompetence of the fiscal people in this administration is nothing short
of breathtaking," he said. "This budget is balanced."
The deficiencies cited by Swift include $297 million in fixed Medicaid costs, $15 million in
court-ordered mental retardation services, $59 million from the Department of Social
Services, and $15 million from the Department of Correction.
In addition, Swift said lawmakers eliminated $40 million in programs, many welfare-related,
that were federally reimbursable -- cutting services while saving nothing on the
state's bottom line.
Swift's claim that the budget is $130 million out of balance is likely an indication of how much
she will veto later this week.
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