House challenges comptroller’s ultimatum authority

Without deal on closeout budget, deadline extended

STATE LAWMAKERS BLEW past Wednesday’s deadline for passing a closeout budget bill, and then a top House lawyer challenged the comptroller’s authority to even impose such an ultimatum.

It was an eleventh hour twist in a saga that has imbued the usually humdrum process of closing the books on a fiscal year with suspense, turmoil, and long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. All this over a budget covering a fiscal year that ended more than five months ago.

That dynamic continued deep into Wednesday night. Lawmakers kept their sessions open, apparently out of the hope that they might finally pass a bill that has been overdue for several weeks.

Frustrated by the holdup on final legislation settling financial matters for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, Comptroller Andrew Maylor warned House and Senate officials that unless they finalized a closeout budget by Wednesday at 3 p.m., he would sweep the $1 billion in unallocated revenue into the state’s reserves.

But then after House and Senate negotiators had nothing to show for themselves at the deadline, Maylor backed off his threat, announcing that he learned “that substantial progress on a final supplemental appropriations bill has been made.”

“The Comptroller has therefore agreed to temporarily suspend this afternoon’s planned transfer of $1.005 billion to the Commonwealth Stabilization Fund, and will refrain from closing the books of the Commonwealth at this time,” a spokesperson said in a statement. Along with that retreat, came a much wobblier warning that Maylor was “prepared to transfer the surplus as soon as the morning of December 12, 2019, if clear progress towards final enactment is not made in the remainder of today’s session.”

Meanwhile, an official in Maylor’s office and House chief legal counsel James Kennedy were engaged in an exchange about the comptroller’s authority to move the fiscal 2019 revenue without a directive from the Legislature. After the 3 p.m. deadline, Kennedy wrote to the comptroller’s office, laying out several arguments why he said Maylor can’t unilaterally sweep the leftover revenue into the state’s rainy day fund.

Because some fiscal 2019 accounts remain in deficit, Kennedy contended that closing the books would violate the constitutional prohibition on an unbalanced budget, and he declared that the power to appropriate funds “lies exclusively with the General Court.”

“Although the Comptroller has no interest in litigating this issue in the press, we disagree with House Counsel’s opinion,” the comptroller’s communications director, Michael Sangalang, responded on Wednesday night. “It is our opinion that the Comptroller possesses the legal authority to make said transfer.”

Sangalang also argued that because the top House and Senate budget writers each made “personal requests” for Maylor to suspend the deadline, that shows that they recognize his authority to sweep the funds.

It was a legalistic detour to a dispute between the House and Senate that has been largely hidden from public view. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka have only offered glimpses into their thinking about what should be done to break the stalemate, and what the disagreement is all about.

Just before Thanksgiving, Spilka told the State House News Service that it is “not about spending,” and DeLeo floated the idea of passing a barebones bill that would only fund the accounts that ended fiscal 2019 in deficit along with passing policy riders that both House and Senate already agreed to – such as scheduling next year’s state primary election.

One major policy disagreement between the two chambers concerned corporate tax relief that the House included in its version of the bill, and the Senate did not.

Gov. Charlie Baker, meanwhile, has pushed lawmakers to include other spending priorities that made it into earlier versions of the closeout budget – to fund repairs to the MBTA and drinking water testing.

“I know my colleagues in the Legislature share my sense of urgency to deliver these funds today and we stand ready to assist lawmakers in whatever way possible to enact this critical spending bill,” Baker said in a statement Wednesday morning.

The brinksmanship that has brought the House and Senate past prior deadlines and into the holiday season is a bit out of the ordinary, and DeLeo has stressed that it is unique in his decade-plus of leading the House and, before that, the House Ways and Means Committee. Spilka has led the Senate for just over a year.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

In his letter, Kennedy also specifically addressed the issue of continuing appropriations – which is basically funding that rolls over from year to year. The House alone has accumulated $25 million of it, while the Senate stands to receive $8 million from fiscal 2019. Maylor has said that, without legislation, those funds will be swept into the state’s reserves, but Kennedy appeared to disagree.

“It is still not clear to us why the Comptroller believes he has the statutory authority to refuse to fund continuing appropriations and new spending requests lawfully enacted by the General Court and approved by the Governor,” Kennedy said.