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AG greenlights city budget ballot question

Ballot initiative would give council more say in budget

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
AG greenlights city budget ballot question
District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards has spearheaded an effort to make the city’s budgeting process more inclusive. BANNER FILE PHOTO

The Attorney General’s office last Friday cleared a ballot question that, if approved by voters this November, would shift the balance of power in Boston’s budget process by giving the council the authority to amend a mayor’s budget “in whole, or in part,” and override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote.

The ballot initiative would also set up a new Office of Participatory Budgeting to allow residents a greater say in how Boston spends its money.

“Based on the Attorney General’s standard of review, we find no conflict with the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth and approve the proposed charter amendment,” said the legal memo.

The clearance puts Boston voters one step closer to deciding whether budgetary power, long dominated by the mayor, should diffuse among the 13-member council and among Boston residents.

Under current law, the council can only reduce or reject items within a budget. It cannot create its own budget and can only increase funding towards certain items with the mayor’s blessing.

East Boston councilor Lydia Edwards, who has steered the effort, said she’s “excited beyond belief” at the legal blessing. The only remaining step is to craft the text of the ballot question with the city’s election commission.

“We hope to have it done by the end of the month,” Edwards said, adding that the commission may need more time in light of the city’s preliminary election.

The approval came nearly 48 hours after the city council and acting Mayor came dangerously close to missing Boston’s budget deadline and triggering a rare emergency funding schedule. The budget passed with an eleventh-hour deal that added a $31 million supplemental spending bill to fund council priorities with federal COVID relief money.

After the city’s operation and schools budgets passed, council budget chair Kenzie Bok said allowing council budget amendments would make the budget process more transparent, lessening the incentive for the council to withhold votes and cut deals with the mayor to accomplish priorities.

“Every voter who reaches out to me thinks that I, as their councilor, can impact the budget,” Bok said pointing to other cities, the state legislature and Congress which allow for amendments and veto overrides. “That’s really the way that this should be done.”

Edwards said the proposal would also ensure that a budget is passed by the last day of the fiscal year.

The ballot initiative would set up a participatory budgeting by July 2023, an effort for which acting Mayor Kim Janey has already set aside $1 million.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.