Baker seeks $170 million in new spending
Request comes after governor slashed $49 million to close deficit
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A MONTH AFTER slashing $49 million from the state budget in a bid to address a deficit, Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday asked for $169.5 million in new appropriations and urged lawmakers to pass his bill quickly since many state accounts will need cash infusions by the end of March.
Baker is counting on government revenue collections exceeding original estimates to close much of a $320 million gap that his budget team flagged in January between revenues and expenses in the final four-plus months of fiscal 2016.
In a letter Friday to the House and Senate, the governor said there are sufficient revenues estimated to be available to cover the funding requests, which include $41 million for emergency family shelter and services programs and $40.3 million in costs related to the legal representation of indigent clients.
The bill also includes $16 million to cover costs of collective bargaining agreements between the Essex sheriff and the Essex County Correctional Officers Association; the state and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local S-28 and S-29; the state and the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, the Worcester sheriff and the New England Police Benevolent Association, Local 550; the Essex sheriff and the National Correctional Employees Union, Local 123; and the Essex sheriff and the Essex County Regional Emergency Communication Dispatchers.
The legislation allocates $28.2 million for county sheriffs, who operate the state’s network of jails and houses of correction, $15 million for the Department of Children and Families, and $14.6 million for a rental voucher program.
The bill includes $13 million for “legal settlements and judgments.” Asked about these settlements, a Baker administration official did not provide any details, saying only that the money will cover settlements expected to be completed this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The administration expects that previously unanticipated revenues will cover most of the $320 million budget gap, and one veteran monitor of state budget issues told the News Service there’s some risk involved making regular midyear appropriations to cover spending in accounts that repeatedly run over-budget, such as private counsel, emergency shelter, and assistance to the county sheriffs.
When the economy stops outperforming expectations, budget writers have less freedom to make midyear appropriations, said Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
“There has been a longstanding problem that our initial budgets have often not fully funded costs that we know will occur,” said Berger.
Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny said it’s “tough” to accurately estimate all spending levels in a budget that’s approaching $40 million, but acknowledged accounts are underfunded “as a matter of course” in the annual budget as part of the balancing challenge.
Asked if she felt the revenues would be there to meet the new expenses, McAnneny said, “It does appear from the data that the revenues are coming in a little bit higher than expected.”
This year’s budget includes about $98 million in funds that were vetoed by Gov. Baker last summer but released after the Legislature overrode a series of the governor’s vetoes.
Baker, who learned about the inner workings of state government as a health and human services and state finance Cabinet secretary in the 1990s, told reporters Friday afternoon that the request for $170 million in new spending authorizations, coming on the heels of his emergency spending cuts, did not point to any problems with the way the state handles its budgets.
“When you put together a budget one of the things you try to figure out is where you’re going to have under-appropriations in areas that are simply not going to be avoided,” Baker said. “And most of the stuff we filed, some of which was things like additional money for legal aid and some of which was collective bargaining agreements and some of which were deficiencies that we just knew we were going to have anyway, we baked those into the budget as we go through the process of reviewing what we get from the Legislature and we book it and that’s where the $300 million plus or minus deficit that we saw early in the fiscal year came from and that is why we waited as long as we did to deal with the spending side of the equation to see if there would be any improvement in revenue and there was. So we accounted for the improvement in revenue, made some 9C cuts and filed what we believe was a significant enough supplemental budget to cover all the outstanding expenses the commonwealth will incur in this fiscal year.”
According to Baker’s filing letter, his budget bill also includes $4 million for costs related to compliance with federal requirements for the SNAP program; $2 million in moving costs at the Plymouth County district attorney’s office, $2 million for unanticipated costs of administering the MCAS and PARCC tests, and $200,000 to hire hearing offices to reduce a case backlog at the Sex Offender Register Board.
The bill also calls for federal funds associated with last winter’s storms to cover future snow and ice removal costs, authorizes funds transferability within the MassHealth program, and authorizes the Department of Youth Services to provide services to individuals previously served by DYS until age 22.
Current law sets the top age at 21.
An outside section of Baker’s bill repeals eight sections of state law governing the licensing, inspection and supervision of cold storage warehouses.The bill also repeals five sections of state law dealing with the prohibition of buying, selling and transport of methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol, by anyone other than a registered druggist, and the associated penalties. The methyl alcohol law has an exemption for shellac varnish or paint remover.
Matt Murphy contributed to this report