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There ought to be a better way to shape the Massachusetts budget

Political pork barrels come in many shapes and sizes and, as much as ever, they are a part of the budget-fashioning process in Massachusetts. Those who disagree need look no further than the $8.1 billion state budget for fiscal 1985 approved by the House of Representatives.

Many of the 270 amendments - added to the spending blueprint during the 19 days of floor debate - cannot be called pork-barrel projects. However, some lawmakers did manage to provide budget goodies for their districts. More than half of the 411 amendments offered by individual representatives during the lengthy debate were approved - a number that suggests lawmakers lack sensitivity to the need for budget controls.

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Legislators may find a way to justify some budget items, such as $180,000 for dredging a pond in Attleboro, $120,000 for a traffic light in Seekonk, $150,000 for a fire truck in Clinton, and $98,300 for a skating rink on Martha's Vineyard. But can the commonwealth really afford these projects?

If the answer is yes, which it may be in some instances, some less important items within the budget recommended by the Ways and Means Committee could be scrubbed. Seldom, however, will a lawmaker who proposes an amendment (whether or not it is of the pork-barrel variety) suggest economies elsewhere in the state budget, although that certainly would be the fiscally responsible thing to do.

Some of the more costly spending boosts initiated during the House debate - such as the 4 percent cost-of-living increase for retired public employees and $ 8 million extra earmarked for recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children - would benefit more than one district. While these spending increases may be well intentioned, the same question remains: Can the commonwealth afford it?

It is unrealistic to expect legislators to refrain from getting as much as they can for the districts they serve. However, amendments ordinarily have rough sledding without the support of the House leadership. But this year circumstances were very different because of two new developments - the ongoing battle over the future House speakership and the gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the daily sittings.

This year, House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn and members of his team were not in a position to throw their weight around to thwart changes in the budget recommended by the chamber's Ways and Means Committee. A fast gavel, which cuts off debate, is apparently too hard to wield in the presence of live TV cameras and the uncertainty of who might be watching the cut-off. Rank-and-file representatives, who have been reluctant to push for budget amendments that lack leadership support, this time took full advantage of a less disciplined House.

Much depends on whether the Senate will go along with the House version of the state budget. Usually the upper chamber proposes a very different spending blueprint, setting the stage for a House-Senate conference committee (three members from each chamber) that tries to resolve disputed appropriations.

Frequently, appropriations for pet projects in which the legislative leadership has no interest fall by the wayside at this stage. It will probably hold true this year, since much of the conference committee's work goes on behind the scenes. The letter, if not the spirit, of legislative rules requiring that such sittings be public is observed by voting in open meeting.

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Resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget are usually particularly time-consuming when the two lawmaking chambers disagree on hundreds of items. The conferees, appointed by the Senate president and House speaker, first must agree among themselves. Then, their recommendation must be accepted by a majority of legislators in each branch.

If it proves impossible to reach agreement on a spending program by July 1 - the start of the new fiscal year - lawmakers would have little choice but to approve a makeshift budget to keep the commonwealth running. Nobody, least of all Senate president William M. Bulger (D) of Boston and Speaker McGee, wants such an arrangement - yet the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Regardless of how smoothly and expeditiously a fiscal '85 spending plan is adopted, important changes are needed in the way future annual budgets are shaped.

A deadline for House and Senate action. This would allow legislative conferees at least a full month to work out any differences in the two versions.

Expanding the Ways and Means committees. Each chamber should consider adding more members and should include more lawmakers of diverse backgrounds and philosophies.

Advance notice of budget amendments. A legislative rules change could be made to require that all proposed amendments be submitted in writing, to every lawmaker, at least 24 hours in advance. And floor debate on each item could be limited to five minutes, evenly divided between proponents and opponents. This would eliminate hours of tedious, repetitive oratory on the same issue.

Electing members of the conference committee. Budget conference committees are a fact of political life, but they can be improved by ending their dominance by the legislative leadership. Why not have fellow lawmakers elect the conferees , through secret ballot, instead of appointing them through the House speaker or Senate president? Such a suggestion is worthy of attention, if only in the interest of sounder budgets.

A budget process that takes 19 days, spread over five weeks, to get the the fiscal 1985 budget (and its 270 floor-approved amendments through the House) is something in which nobody can - or should - take pride.

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