It's budget season on Beacon Hill, and that means it's time for some legislators to wrangle what they can from the roughly $40 billion of tax payer dollars on the table for special appropriations or pet projects — among them some worthy causes — known in the political business as "earmarks". 

For reasons that nobody can quite agree on, there were a record number of earmarks and special budget items (they are not quite the same thing) proposed for Fiscal Year 2017: 1,307 from the House alone, with more to come as the Senate now takes up its own proposed budget.

“The economy is doing better, so people probably feel that the state has more money, and they want to provide some proposals on how best to spend that,” observed Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a fiscally conservative nonprofit watchdog group. 

Another possibility, McAnneny suggested, is that, given less legislative activity overall in the past couple years, “I think it could be that legislators are feeling a little bit frustrated and are trying to use the budget process to move their proposals forward.” 

Other observers of the budget process suggested that the rising number of amendments speaks to a tight hold on the budget process by party leaders — notably, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Committee on Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey.

Earmarks amount to only an estimated one percent or so of the budget. And they fund many crucial services, among them emergency assistance for homeless families, upgrades to infrastructure, services to combat opioid addiction, and much more.

But they can be anathema to fiscal conservatives and good government groups.

For one thing, the process by which some earmarks wind up in the budget, and others don't, is very much the stuff of smoke-filled rooms. 

But earmarks also represent a way to fund projects and organizations without having to bother with a slew of contracting regulations, reporting requirements, grant applications, and sundry other protocols. 

 

Last year, as WGBHreported at the time, some recipients of earmarked funds had failed to comply with basic annual reporting requirements specified for businesses and charities.

A larger question raised by earmarks is whether they are fair: It's no secret that legislators with more clout are better positioned to get their own amendments passed; and earmarks often divert state funding to some towns or communities for amenities, events, and improvements that other communities presumably have to pay for themselves — or that are usually funded out of regular departmental funds.

So, in an effort to shine some light on the situation, the WGBH Data Desk has culled as many seeming earmarks as we could and programed them to run through our Twitter Bot, the MassBudgetBot, to facilitate public scrutiny.

Here are just a few recent examples; visit MassBudgetBot on Twitter for live updates.

$100,000 be expended to the city of Beverly for repairs to the carriage house in Lynch Park By: Gentile |https://t.co/2bfopbIqj2— MassBudgetBot (@MassBudgetBot) April 28, 2016

$64,400 for public safety improvements in the town of Northbridge. "By: Cariddi |https://t.co/6FM7w4joBy— MassBudgetBot (@MassBudgetBot) April 28, 2016

$100,000 for the enhancement of Artists' Row in the city of Salem By: Collins |https://t.co/F0Pl74Ixew— MassBudgetBot (@MassBudgetBot) April 28, 2016

With MassBudgetBot, we hope not just to highlight the often-opaque earmark process — but also to encourage you, our listeners and readers, to dig into the data yourselves and share what you find. We welcome tips, comments, and feedback.