BOSTON — In a budget notable for the blinding speed with which it won passage this week, the $32.4 billion spending plan that cleared the House late Wednesday night laid bare a schism among the chamber’s Democrats, some of whom accused their leaders of attacking poor Massachusetts residents under the guise of a crackdown on welfare abuse.
“We’ve painted a picture that to be poor means to be irresponsible,” said Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford), adding, “I wish we had spent half as much time on how to end poverty.”
Sciortino was one of 33 Democrats – including several members of Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team – to vote against a budget provision that would clamp down on welfare recipients who use cash benefits to pay for alcohol, cigarettes, pornography and other purposes deemed unessential by proponents. The measure would also block recipients from spending benefits on cosmetics, theater tickets and travel.
Critics of the measure were easily outvoted; 122 members, including the House’s 33 Republicans, voted to support the proposal. Opponents used sharp language to slam the measure.
Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) said proponents of the crackdown were acting like Big Brother, imposing their will on the state’s poorest residents. Sciortino appropriated a long-held Republican critique of Democratic policies, accusing supporters of the measure of turning Massachusetts into a “nanny state.” But the harshest critique came from Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton).
“This amendment is not pro-taxpayer. This amendment is anti-poor-person,” she said. “I feel deeply sad that what we’re talking about this week at every turn one would think the real problem are these poor people instead of talking about a budget that, due to a failing economy we are not able to provide a safety net that people in this commonwealth deserve.”
“What this is about is this long list of uses of money that people aren’t going to be allowed to use so if a poor woman wants to go to a job interview and she needs to put on lipstick, she’s not going to be able to,” Balser said. “We’re picking on the poor people instead of helping them … This is a sad night.”
Backers of the proposal, which passed just before midnight, argued that it was intended to root out misuse of the welfare system and preserve funds for those who truly need them.
“This amendment ensures that those who need food and cash benefits to support their families have them,” said Rep. Martha Walz (D-Boston).
Rep. Paul Adams, a freshman Republican from Andover, added that Massachusetts already provides among the most generous benefits to poor residents – from subsidized health care to low-cost transportation to legal assistance.
“What don’t we give away for free?” he asked. “This amendment simply limits the ability for people to buy nonessentials … The taxpayers are begging us to make this reform.”
The debate capped a day largely devoid of public debate on the budget, despite the dispensation of hundreds of amendments lawmakers filed to alter the Ways and Means Committee’s bill. If there was debate over those amendments, it occurred behind closed doors in the House’s private quarters where lawmakers were periodically instructed to discuss their amendments with top DeLeo deputies.
With the consent of the rank-and-file, as well as the Republican caucus, House leaders raced through consideration of more than 400 budget amendments Wednesday intent on completing the budget before midnight Wednesday, the third day of budget deliberations.
The budget passed 150-4 as the clock struck midnight. The four Republicans who voted against the budget were Reps. Adams of Andover, Steven Levy of Marlborough, Marc Lombardo of Billerica and James Lyons of Andover.
“The House budget for fiscal year ’13 maximizes the value of every last state dollar and strives to implement sensible reforms to position Massachusetts for a bright economic future,” DeLeo said in a statement after the vote. “Although we are still challenged by this downturn, we’ve produced a budget that preserves essential services, aids municipalities, strengthens our community colleges and reforms the use of our EBT system so that its serves the most in need.”
The plan now heads to the Senate which will build its own plan in time for consideration the week before Memorial Day. The House’s rapid consideration of its budget continued a trend in which House leaders have prized speed and efficiency over public debate and explanation. The Senate too has opted to rush through its budget deliberations in recent years.
Proposals to crack down on illegal immigration that once generated hours of debate received scant interest Wednesday night as the House pushed through a plan to punish driver’s caught without a license and to monitor the state’s entrance into a federal illegal immigration crackdown called Secure Communities. That move could provide momentum for similar measures in the Senate, where members have shown greater willingness to back crackdowns on illegal immigration in recent years.
The House’s budget passed without any changes to the tax code, virtually ensuring that a budget proposal that reaches Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk will include no new taxes or fees. The House spending plan does embrace a delay in a $45 million business tax break promised in a 2008 corporate tax law.
During three days of review, members also tacked on more than $110 million in addition spending, from increases to an anti-gang program, to an uptick in spending on the Trial Court. Dozens of policy and spending decisions were made with minimal debate or explanation, while members used floor speeches to describe spending increases to favored programs. There was little discussion of spending cut specifics.
House leaders described their budget as a balanced approach to preserve essential services while grappling with lingering economic uncertainty and exploding growth in caseload programs like Medicaid and transitional assistance. Although lawmakers built the budget anticipating tax collections to soar $900 million next fiscal year, all of that growth would be consumed by growth in those budget-busting accounts, according to fiscal analysts.
The House budget would fund local education aid at $4.15 billion – a $164 million increase over the current fiscal year. It would also fund an $8.4 million increase in the special education circuit breaker, bringing that account to $221.5 million.