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The Million Dollar Maze: Navigating The State Budget Process

BOSTON — The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a $32.4 billion budget at midnight on Wednesday. Late-night sessions and closed-door caucuses are just part of a process that one nonprofit organization thinks lacks transparency. The Center for Public Integrity gave the commonwealth an F for its state budget process on its “Corruption Risk Report Card.”

To track just how complicated the process is, we turned to Rep. Carlos Henriquez, from Dorchester, with a budget item that’s very important to him.

“As a young boy, you get into things,” he said. “It starts off as regular mischief but it can easily get into something bigger.”

At 16, he watched his friends go from stealing bags of chips to selling drugs. Henriquez stayed out of trouble because of a summer job. Now 35, he is determined to make sure job placements and after-school programs are available to the young people in his neighborhood.

“I can’t put a price tag on human life, and I’ve seen this change and save human lives,” Henriquez said of the Shannon Community Safety Initiative grants, which fund anti-gang programs.

Man With A Mission

In his first term, Henriquez has made it his mission to fight for the Shannon grants that go to anti-gang programs. And this week the Democratic representative tried to convince House budget leaders not to cut that funding down to $2 million.

His first step was to file an amendment to increase funding to $8 million. As a rule, House members have just three days to get their amendments in.

Within a matter of days, Henriquez already had 25 representatives signed on. But he knew that wouldn’t be enough. He had to make his case before the powerful House Ways And Means Committee at a caucus that’s announced an hour or two before it begins in the members’ lounge.

Members’ Only

Outside, the doors of the lounge are like a kids’ clubhouse. They read in big bold letters: “Members Only, Private, No Admittance.”

Inside, dozens of representatives made competing appeals to the Ways and Means Committee – out of the public eye. Henriquez rationalizes why the public and press are kept out of these sorts of meetings.

“When I walk in this room there will be close to 40 reps in there at least; if opened up to the public, it won’t be orderly,” he said. “It wouldn’t be productive, so that’s kind of the challenge of it.”

There are no public records of these budget caucuses. Supporters of the Shannon grants had to believe that Henriquez was fighting for their cause in this room. After about an hour, he stepped out.

Henriquez had to do a lot of waiting before he learned the fate of his amendment. To kill time, he cleaned out his office, noshed on brownies from the State House cafe, and listened to some James Brown.

‘It Is An Increase’

Well it wasn’t exactly “big payback.” But the Ways and Means Committee chose some amendments to bundle into what’s called a “consolidated amendment.” It included the Shannon grants.

“We got Shannon grant funded at 5.5 [million], which isn’t as high as we wanted, but it is an increase of half a million [dollars] from last year,” Henriquez said, counting the measure as a win. “It is an increase. You really don’t want to complain when it is an increase. You don’t want to come back and say that’s not enough.”

Henriquez was happy with the bundled amendments, but if not, he could have pulled a specific item out and debated it on the House floor. That just doesn’t happen very often.

With one quick voice vote, the consolidated amendment on public safety was approved.

This same process happened again and again until the House settled on a total $32.4 billion budget. Then Henriquez was looking forward to a victory lap around town.

“I bought some headlights and some taillights for my bike, so maybe a nighttime ride, if I’m lucky,” he said. “Ride around the city, maybe a couple of screams and hollers from the bike.”

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