In closed-door budget process, Mass. House leaders scored big

After months of preaching fiscal restraint, five of the Massachusetts House’s highest-ranking Democrats slipped at least $5 million in earmarks into the chamber’s spending plan in late April, fattening their own districts’ haul far beyond that of most others and almost entirely out of public view.

All told, House Speaker Ron Mariano, budget chief Aaron Michlewitz, Majority Leader Michael Moran, and two other top lieutenants on the House budget committee baked dozens of previously undisclosed earmarks for their districts and other pet causes into the $58 billion taxpayer-funded budget, bypassing the public-facing process that every other rank-and-file member must follow to score coveted extras for their districts.

The election year add-ons included tens of thousands of dollars for dog parks in Michlewitz’s North End neighborhood, half a million dollars for a presidential center and museum in Mariano’s hometown of Quincy, and $175,000 to repair an oceanside castle in Gloucester, the hometown of state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the No. 2 Democrat on the House budget committee.

Michlewitz, the budget’s primary author, added 15 earmarks for his constituents and other priorities, without attaching his name to any of them. That’s more earmarks than any of the chamber’s other 158 representatives collected. Michlewitz’s additions total nearly $1.9 million, more than any single city or town outside of Boston got in direct earmarks, according to a Globe analysis of the more than 700 earmarks the House adopted last month. His haul also topped what all 25 House Republicans received in earmarks combined.

And this all played out largely in secret. House leaders tucked the largesse into sweeping budget amendments assembled in a private, wood-paneled lounge down the hall from the House chamber.

These stealth earmarks are not illegal; rather, they are a coveted, traditional perk of legislative heavyweights, allowing the most powerful to funnel money to hand-picked projects before other members or the voters who elected them realize it.

Not that they would be likely to squawk. The power dynamics of the House — where the speaker controls everything from office space to how much money individual lawmakers make — work to silence potential opposition or complaints, House veterans say.

Most of the leaders’ earmarks were packed into a $27 million package released late on April 26 — a Friday afternoon — in the final 90 minutes of the House’s three-day budget deliberations. Lawmakers then had 30 minutes to read the 12,443-word amendment before it passed with no opposition.

“It not only offends principles of fairness among the members and basic ideas about transparency, it potentially opens the door to all kinds of sweetheart deals or even worse,” Jonathan Hecht, a former Democratic state representative who left the House in 2021, said of the legislative leaders’ practice of inserting their own earmarks late into the budget. “There’s no opportunity for anybody in the public to see what’s being done — until it’s too late.”

Michlewitz, widely regarded as the presumptive speaker when Mariano retires, alone added $1.88 million in funding for local organizations in or near his North End-anchored district. That included $400,000 for a local health center, $65,000 for a nonprofit that runs two North End dog parks, and $50,000 for a group that represents Bay Village, Boston’s smallest neighborhood, considered the city’s “secret-garden” for its tree-lined streets and multimillion-dollar brick row houses. Michlewitz, in total, scored seven times in earmark fundingwhat the median lawmaker received, the Globe found.

Nine other representatives had amendments approved that amounted to more earmark money than what Michlewitz secured himself, the Globe found. But in almost all cases, those other big-dollar earmarks benefited more than a single district. The earmarks of Michlewitz, Mariano, and the other leaders by contrast focused largely on their own.

Representative Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat and the current longest-serving member of the House, scored a $2 million earmark for the Massachusetts Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs, a statewide organization that represents dozens of clubs that serve tens of thousands of children. That one item accounted for most of the nearly $2.8 million in earmarks he won. Likewise, Representative Carlos González, a Springfield Democrat who serves as the House chairman of the joint Public Safety Committee, won amendments that totaled $3 million, with $1 million alone going to a statewide grant program for police and prosecutors.

Mariano included nearly $1.3 million in earmarks for communities in his district, including $500,000 for the Adams Presidential Center, a planned research and exhibition space dedicated to Presidents John and John Quincy Adams and their families, and another $300,000 for Quincy College for “student supports.” Quincy alone scored nearly $1.5 million in direct earmarks from Mariano and two other lawmakers representing the 100,000-person city — the most for any community outside of Boston, Springfield, or Worcester, the state’s three largest cities.

The annual budget is the most fundamental piece of legislation to pass through Beacon Hill each year — and is required by the state Constitution — ensuring that state government remains funded. It funnels billions of dollars to local schools, municipal governments, and various causes, and dominates discussion on Beacon Hill for weeks.

The House Ways and Means Committee typically releases its proposal each April, after which lawmakers can propose an array of amendments, including new policy proposals, such as increasing a public official’s salary, or what are colloquially known as earmarks — which target money to specific projects, from building a new gazebo to funding new band uniforms for a local high school. Other earmarks direct funding to specific local organizations. Those amendments are either accepted and added into the spending bill, or rejected during budget deliberations later in the month.

To become law, they then have to survive closed-door negotiations with the Senate after it passes its own budget, and be signed into law by the governor.

But while most lawmakers must request earmarks by formally filing them through the House clerk — and do so nearly two weeks before deliberations over the budget begin — several House leaders didn’t file a single one on this schedule.

Aides to Mariano said House speakers have a “longstanding” practice of not filing any legislation or amendments to bills.

Of the five House leaders, only Representative Patricia Haddad, the third most powerful Democrat on the budget committee, filed an amendment seeking money for a local sewer project, which other representatives could see in advance. She later withdrew the measure, telling the Globe her aide filed it by mistake. Nonetheless, she still secured $200,000 for the project.

“When you’re on the committee [with Michlewitz] and you’re three doors down . . . we talk,” Haddad said, explaining why she didn’t file amendments for her earmarks. “For me to file an amendment would be kind of dumb.”

The Somerset Democrat ended up getting more than $600,000 in total earmarks, including $100,000 for a nonprofit where her son sits on the advisory board.

Ferrante won $812,500 in earmarks that weren’t revealed before budget deliberations started, including money to repair Gloucester’s Hammond Castle, a 1920s-era mansion that houses a museum and is a popular wedding venue. Add in $525,000 of earmarks for Moran, including $50,000 for a riverside amphitheater in his district, and earmarks inserted by top House leaders added up to $5.1 million to the budget, without the Democrats’ names ever being publicly attached to them.

In response to questions from the Globe, each of the leaders confirmed they were responsible for the proposals benefiting their districts.

In a statement, Mariano defended the House’s budget process as one that “ensures that every member has multiple opportunities to have their voice heard, and their amendments considered.”

Michlewitz said he met privately with individual lawmakers in the months before the budget votes, and noted that, amid an uncertain revenue picture, the roughly $95 million the House added during its deliberations — including $77 million in earmarks by the Globe’s count — was tens of millions lower than what House lawmakers inserted in recent budget cycles. The additions make up a small fraction of a wider spending proposal that now nears $60 billion.

Mariano and others in leadership also argued that every lawmaker can debate an individual amendment on the floor, though few outside of the chamber’s small Republican caucus ever do. Of the 1,495 amendments lawmakers filed to this year’s budget proposal, just seven were considered as standalone proposals, and only six of those — all filed by Republicans — got roll call votes. Just one was adopted.

“While local earmarks are often a critical source of needed support for our communities, the House remained focused on balancing their importance with the need to be fiscally prudent throughout this year’s budget process,” Mariano said in a statement.

‘People are scared’

The earmarks, however, present a stark reminder of the State House’s unbalanced power dynamic, said Evan Horowitz, executive director at Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis. When the line items get folded into “consolidated” mega-amendments, there is little room for conversation or disagreement.

“The power structure of the House is unhealthy,” he said. ”It is not surprising that these are not sprinkled fairly because not all members are treated equally in the power dynamic of the House.”

Democrats, in particular, are loath to challenge House leaders by demanding a floor debate or amendment vote in a chamber where Mariano controls what office they get, what committee assignment they receive, and ultimately, whether they get a lucrative leadership stipend to pad their $73,655-a-year base salary, said state Representative Russell Holmes.

“People are scared,” said the Mattapan Democrat, who has challenged leadership in the past. “When your salary is dependent on you not pulling this [amendment] out and your mortgage still needing to be paid, those things weigh on whether you want to get in the fight with the person who makes the decision in the building.”

Holmes now sits on the House budget committee and won $825,000 in earmarks, the Globe review found.

House leaders have, for at least two decades, used backrooms off the House chamber to piece together their budget. Behind a velvet rope, beyond which only lawmakers may venture during session, Michlewitz listens to members’ requests and then bundles hundreds of earmarks and other proposals — often loosely grouped together by subjects — into what’s known as a consolidated amendment.

As a result, public debate on the House floor has withered, replaced by private meetings several lawmakers likened to the TV show “Shark Tank.” When alerted by House leaders, lawmakers this spring, as in years past, filed into a room off a hallway limited to “Members Only,” where they typically take less than a minute —“quicker than an elevator pitch,” as one lawmaker put it — to appeal to Michlewitz about why their proposed earmark should make it into the sprawling amendment before he moves on to the next one.

For many years, House leaders held court in Room 348, a small conference room steps from the chamber. After the pandemic, House leaders moved the operation to the roomier House member’s lounge. But Room 348 remains shorthand on Beacon Hill for this crucial part of the budget process and where lawmakers have long memories of cramming in shoulder to shoulder to pitch their causes.

“With so many people in there, you can pass out because it’s so hot,” said state Representative Michael Soter, a Bellingham Republican who got $15,000 in earmarks in the current budget.

The process, proponents said, gives lawmakers another avenue to advocate directly for their districts or priorities. But even the process’s defenders said it’s unclear to what degree the backroom jockeying shapes the final product.

“I’m quite certain the [budget] chair has a good idea of what’s going to make it in and what isn’t prior to Room 348,” said state Representative Susannah Whipps, an independent from Athol who received $110,000 in earmarks.

Still, Whipps said it’s a system that works. “It’s the only way you can get through — I don’t know, how many amendments? 1,500 of them?” she said.

‘A charade’

Others disagree. State Auditor Diana DiZoglio, a former lawmaker who served in the House for three terms, said that by taking the debate out of the chamber and into closed-door meetings, leadership prevents the public from tracking a process “that they call democratic but is anything but.”

“It always seemed more like a charade than anything else, that it was kept in place to give rank-and-file legislators the impression that they were being listened to more than they actually were,” said DiZoglio, who has clashed with legislative leaders in her bid to gain the power to audit the Legislature. “It’s a process that allows for some folks to count and some folks not to count.”

Democratic leaders often secured several amendments each, boosting their towns in the process. For example, Wellesley — the home of Assistant Majority Leader Alice Peisch and one of the state’s wealthiest communities— received at least $495,000 in direct earmarks, including $60,000 to digitize town records. Groups and departments in Braintree, the hometown of Revenue Committee Chair Mark Cusack, secured $725,000. Weymouth, which Mariano also helps represent, got $560,000.

Thanks to their powerful representatives, those towns and cities fared far better than cities such as Brockton ($440,000), a majority-Black city of 100,000 people, and Chicopee ($100,000), a Western Massachusetts city where median household income is far lower.

Another example is Chelsea, which received $75,000. The city is home to about 10,000 more people than Wellesley and is 67 percent Latino. In Wellesley, more than three-quarters of residents are white.

Peisch defended her haul, saying in a statement that the “House’s work prioritizes aid for our most vulnerable populations.”

“Earmarks should not be the only measure used to determine a ‘gap’ between other municipalities and Wellesley,” she said.

Republicans, a tiny minority in the House, also tend to fare poorly under the secretive system. The 25-person caucus collectively received $1.6 million in total earmarks. By contrast, about a dozen high-ranking Democratic members received that much, or more, each.

The partisan divide was evident in one town where both state Representative Marcus Vaughn, a first-term Wrentham Republican, and state Representative John Rogers, a veteran Norwood Democrat, filed earmarks of $50,000 and $100,000, respectively, for the same thing: “pedestrian access” improvements at the high school in Walpole, which they both represent.

Language allocating funds for both representatives’ requests was included in the budget — but Vaughn’s at $20,000 and Rogers at the full $100,000. Rogers, a former budget chair himself, told the Globe he believes that the money Vaughn scored was a “data entry issue” and will ultimately be cut from the budget bill before it heads to the governor’s desk.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones — whose $275,000 in earmarks led all members of the GOP caucus — said he believes House leaders used this year’s budget process to punish members, such as Republicans, who tried to disrupt Democratic leadership’s agenda.

Late last year, the few Republican members of the House repeatedly blocked a spending bill with money for the emergency shelter system by using parliamentary maneuvering, ultimately forcing dozens of Democrats to attend an informal session to push it through. At the time, Mariano released statements accusing House Republicans of “obstructionism.”

“I’ve been in the building long enough to know it’s a cause and effect,” Jones said, “even if it’s not stated.”

Mariano’s office did not comment on the treatment of GOP budget amendments.

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