By Andy Metzger and Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — If there were important environmental policy and spending considerations worth publicly debating, the Massachusetts House couldn’t find any of them Wednesday.
With scant debate or recorded votes, House lawmakers piled about $186 million in extra spending authorizations on top of a $1.56 billion multi-year capital spending bill focused on environmental programs, including shoreline protection, land acquisition, parks, harbors and watersheds.
The bond bill is the latest borrowing bill to move through the Legislature. In the months before the fall elections, when lawmakers are up for re-election and a new governor will be elected, lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick have authorized billions of dollars in spending, with a $12.7 billion transportation bond, a $1.4 billion housing bond and a $177 million military bond bill already on the books and plans in the works to green-light hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending on technology and $1.1 billion in special obligation bonds to finance the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center expansion.
The roughly $1.75 billion environmental bill passed 138-5 after a quiet hours-long session marked by hushed discussions about which amendments, mostly local project earmarks, would be added to the bill.
Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, questioned the cost of an earmark-rich, five-page amendment package sponsored by House budget chief Rep. Brian Dempsey and adopted by the Democrat-controlled House. House leaders proceeded to a final vote without announcing a bottom line and most House Republicans joined the Democrats in approving the legislation.
An aide to Dempsey, the House Ways and Means chairman, told the News Service after Wednesday’s session that the bill’s $1.56 billion price tag had risen to $1.746 billion to account for amendments.
The so-called consolidated amendment, a favored approach to legislating under Speaker Robert DeLeo, was packed with local project authorizations, including $852,000 for sludge handling improvements in Hadley, $100,000 to install oyster reefs in the estuaries of Falmouth, $2.5 million to restore a beach area along the banks of the Nashua River in Clinton, $3 million to remove invasive aquatic species from two ponds and a reservoir in Cohasset, and $300,000 to improve the municipal golf course in Braintree.
Rep. RoseLee Vincent, a Revere Democrat, was one of the few House members to take the podium and discuss the bill. She said that Revere Beach had been a “desolate, unsafe three and a half mile stretch of sand” strewn with glass, trash and syringes before a cleanup effort restored it to an “urban oasis.”
After Vincent’s speech, her first to the full House since she won a special election, lawmakers agreed to $20 million in spending authorizations for Metro Boston beaches, from Nahant to Hull.
Unlike budget bills, which actually appropriate funds, bond bills merely authorize borrowing, leaving it to the governor and executive branch officials to decide which authorized projects to actually take on.
The bond bill includes $5.4 million for water purification in Sharon, $5.6 million for spending on dams in Springfield, and $12 million for the Leo J. Martin Golf Course, which is located in Weston. The bill includes $2 million for community kitchens, food truck commissaries, greenhouses, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, along with $2.1 million for upgrades to Powers Farm in Randolph.
Lawmakers targeted skating rinks, waterways, forest trails, sea walls and bike paths for funds in the bill.
“The House’s Environmental Bond provides a solid framework and resources for supporting clean air and water, healthy communities, recreation and natural resources – fisheries, agriculture and forestry. We applaud House for its leadership in setting the table for the next administration,” said Stephen Long, of The Nature Conservancy, in a statement.
The bill provides $5 million for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst and another $5 million to upgrade the facilities at the UMass Cranberry Research Station in East Wareham.
In a brief rundown of categories of spending authorized in the bill, before amendments were adopted, Environment Committee Chair Rep. Anne Gobi of Spencer said the legislation was a "representation of all that we care about."
Gobi said the bill includes $312 million for energy programs, $125 million to improve coastal facilities, $120 million for coastal infrastructure projects, $60 for coastal and inland waterways projects, $57 million for a water pollution abatement fund, $50 million for dams and flood control, $50 million for parkland acquisition. The bill also authorizes $40 million for air and water quality efforts at the Department of Environmental Protection, $20 million for forestry and tree planting and replanting, $15 million to address agriculture infrastructure and farms, and $10 million for an energy audit program.
“There is something for every part of the Commonwealth," said Gobi, who is giving up her House seat in a bid for a Senate seat later this year.
Republicans Reps. Geoff Diehl, Ryan Fattman, Kevin Kuros, Marc Lombardo and James Lyons voted against the bill.
Asked early Wednesday for a summary of the bond bill, an aide in the House Ways and Means Committee, which recommended the version of the legislation that passed Wednesday, said it wasn’t the policy of the committee to provide bill summaries. That’s different than the Senate, where the Ways and Means Committee routinely makes available summaries of the bills it drafts and releases to the Senate.