Transportation Committee Begins Consideration of the Bond Bill

September 17, 2019

At the end of July, Governor Baker filed his suggested Transportation Bond Bill, meant to finance improvements to the state’s transit system, roadways and transportation infrastructure. Due to have a hearing before the Transportation Committee on October 8th, this begins the long process for this issue.

Bond Bills may cover any number of items but are usually organized around a uniting theme that focuses in capital investment in the Commonwealth. Capital spending is allocated off-state-budget because it is usually for physical assets rather than programmatic endeavors, though that can change in each iteration.

Bond Bills are different from other spending bills because they are funded by bonds sold by the Commonwealth – they’re not tied to the state’s General Fund. The amount of bonds that the state is allowed to have outstanding in any given year is affected by the individual state’s bond rating. It’s largely like a spending limit on a credit card – the state is not authorized to spend more than that amount per year.

When the state authorizes a new Bond Bill, they must consider the other outstanding financial obligations on previously-passed Bond Bills so that they stay below that ‘credit limit’. And in the end – the amount actually spent on projects authorized is dependent on the state’s sale of those bonds and the political climate. It is common that a project is authorized within a Bond Bill but never comes to fruition.

The process for consideration of the Bond Bill is lengthy and so many times, these bills are still under consideration in the waning days of the legislative session. However, they are almost always completed before time in the session expires.

Here’s how the process works:

1.)        The process starts with the Governor and the bill goes first to the House for its consideration. The draft of the bill will include the timeline for the available funds, as well as the total amount of bonded money available. It typically only includes funding in general areas (i.e. $1.5 Billion for bridge repairs) – specific projects are added by the Legislature in their consideration (i.e. $200 million for the Longfellow bridge in Boston).

2.)        The Bond Bill is given an initial bill number and referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation Committee. This committees are made up of both House and Senate members so this will be the most comprehensive review of the subject matter.

Again, the hearing on this bill is scheduled for October 8th.  Following this the Committee will redraft the bill to include more legislative priorities. It also gets assigned a new bill number.

3.)        The bill is released with a favorable report by the Transportation Committee and then proceeds to the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, which also has its own hearings on the appropriateness of the spending in the bill and makes a recommendation. This bill by the Bonding committee may be the same or very different from the one released by the earlier committee. It may also have a third new bill number after this stop

4.)        Next comes consideration by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is charged with looking at the funding overall. House Ways and Means releases a bill that may, again, be very different and have yet another bill number.

5.)        Following this, the bill proceeds to the full House for consideration. There, members propose amendments to include priority projects, and the final bill reflects the interests of the whole House.  The final bill also gets a new House bill number.

 

From there, the bill is considered by the Senate in much the same way. Once it is received in the Senate, it goes straight to the Senate Bonding Committee because the subject matter was examined in the Joint Transportation committee.

1.)        Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets – again, determines the appropriateness of the spending and can hold hearings on the bill. The bill is then given a Senate bill number.

2.)        Senate Ways and Means – the bill may again be given a new Senate bill number.

3.)        Full Senate for debate, amendment, and passage – the bill is given a final Senate bill number.

In all, a Bond Bill may have eight different versions and bill numbers before it gets to the Conference Committee. As a result, the final bills passed by the House and Senate are very different and must be reconciled. A Conference Committee is now appointed with 3 members from each branch – 2 from the majority party and 1 from the minority. The Lead Conferee in each branch is frequently the Chair of Transportation Committee though it may also be the Chair of Ways and Means.

Upon completion of this Conference Committee, the House and Senate vote on a Conference Bond Bill with a simple yes or no vote – there are no amendments allowed at this point.

The Governor then has 10 days to review the bill and veto items or suggest changes, which the Legislature can override if it is still convened in Formal Session.

One key factor here is that a Bond Bill simply authorizes funding for projects. If the state is not able to sell bonds in the total amount listed in the bond, or if they do not wish to prioritize a project as it’s listed, it may still not be completed.

Bond bills usually have a 3-5 year life span before the next one on that subject matter is passed – at this point, most uncompleted projects are deauthorized and must be included in a new bill to move forward.

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