Lawmakers close FY16 budget gap

Use $60m from Convention Center Fund to offset tax shortfall


THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE on Thursday fast-tracked a spending bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk aimed at closing the books on fiscal 2016, which ended June 30, in part by drawing up to $60 million from the state’s Convention Center Fund to use for general spending purposes.

The spending bill emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday morning and with a skeleton crew on hand it cleared both branches without debate. It is based on a bill (H 4517) Gov. Charlie Baker filed in July.

Before the bill was approved, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr applauded the use of Convention Center Fund revenues for general state spending and Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester said she hoped Gov. Baker would say definitively whether he intends to advance a major expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center that his administration put on hold last year.

A Ways and Means Committee aide said the the bill’s net cost to the state is $26.6 million but line items in the legislation add up to far more than that and include $168 million for the office of the secretary in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, for instance. The $26.6 million bottom line assigned to the bill by the House budget committee does not include spending that is covered by federal reimbursements. A total spending estimate was not available.

The bill also includes $4.9 million for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, $1.47 million for the Department of Children and Families, $8.7 million for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, just over $2 million for the state treasurer’s office, and a new $1.24 million item for the Division of Transportation Network Services, an agency being launched to regulate the app-based ride-hailing industry.

In addition to its appropriations, the bill (H 4664) includes more than three dozen outside sections, including language relating to scholarship programs, voting eligibility, pharmacists and prescribing, trauma care reporting, veterans agents, veterans housing, Casa Dominicana Inc., the TRAIN grant program, the Department of Elder Affairs in Braintree, the preparation of Nov. 8 election ballots, nursing facilities, and the Community First Trust Fund.

Outside section 32 of the bill calls for a supplemental payment of up to $30.5 million from the Medical Assistance Trust Fund to the Cambridge Public Health Commission after the commission transfers up to $15.25 million to the fund using a “federally-permissible source of funds.” The bill similarly orders the state to pay $89.6 million from the fund to the commission for “public hospital transformation and incentive initiative payments” after the commission transfers up to $44.8 million of its funds to the trust fund.

Another section of the bill speaks to the potential sale of land at the former state hospital in Grafton.

The bill’s advancement comes as Gov. Baker and legislators struggle to keep spending and revenues in balance in the face of tax collections that have fallen short of even downwardly revised projections.

The legislation also orders the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency to transfer $1.5 million to the state’s General Fund, which would also be infused with $7.5 million in repaid loan funds from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

A House Ways and Means Committee spokesman said the budget bill approved Thursday “is very closely aligned with the version filed by the Baker Administration in July, and we are confident that steps have been taken legislatively and administratively to ensure that we close the books on FY16 in balance as we are required to do.” Details of steps authorized in the bill to balance last year’s budget were not available from the budget committee.

The supplemental budget boosts the account funding home care services for elders by about $3.78 million and increases the portion of the money that comes from the federal Community First Trust Fund. Mass Home Care executive director Al Norman said the extra funds should be enough to put an end to a waiting list that went into effect Sept. 1 for applicants seeking home care services to meet a “critical unmet need of meal preparation.”

“We’re very pleased that the Legislature got the message and acted quickly,” Norman told the News Service. “This is a significant victory for older people, and we hope we can count on the governor.”

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The House also advanced a bill (H 4663) Thursday to allow the town of Hull to vote on Nov. 8 whether to adopt the Community Preservation Act. That legislation must be enacted on Monday, Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato said, to give election officials enough time to print ballots for the special town election.

Katie Lannan contributed to this story.