Senate sends budget to Baker

Concerns on opioid spending, balancing gimmicks


WITH JUST HOURS REMAINING in the current fiscal year, the state Senate on Thursday evening voted 38-1 to send a fiscal 2017 budget to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

The $39.15 billion budget passed the House earlier in the day on a 150-3 vote.

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, was the lone senator to vote against the budget.

In a statement, Keenan said he opposed the budget because it “significantly undercut the Department of Public Health’s ability” to lead the state out of an ongoing opioid crisis.

“By failing to support the Substance Abuse Services Fund we are putting many of our services at risk, potentially leading to a reduction in services that are already in critical shortage,” Keenan said. “We are falling short on a commitment we’ve repeatedly and emphatically made to the families of the Commonwealth, and I cannot support this action which is contradictory to that commitment.”

The compromise budget that emerged yesterday from a six-member conference committee contains $139.2 million in total funding to fight the opioid epidemic, an increase of $23.6 million over fiscal 2016 spending, according to Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka’s office.

According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the budget underfunds family homelessness and indigent legal defense accounts by more than $80 million. The bill carries further risks because it assumes about $173 million in savings based on recalculations of projected caseloads, including in MassHealth, from already “aggressively low” growth rates, MTF says. And budget writers are already counting on more than $151 million in savings from reversions, or payments made to the General Fund after sweeping accounts where spending levels are projected to fall shy of appropriations. The amount of savings linked to reversions is larger than in past budgets, according to MTF, and the budget also redirects $51.5 million in debt service reversions intended to address retiree health care liabilities.

“Heavy reliance on reversions this early in the budget process is unusual,” MTF wrote in a bulletin on Thursday. The business-backed group commended lawmakers for producing an on-time budget after learning late in the process that tax revenues were likely to fall well short of estimates, but concluded the “solutions put forth in this budget still leave the state in a precarious financial position.”

MTF says relying on reversions at the outset of the new fiscal year removes a tool for savings later in the fiscal year. A Baker administration official told the News Service recently that the fiscal 2016 budget, which also faced trouble because of lowered revenue expectations of between $320 million and $370 million, was being balanced with the assistance of $175 million in reversions.

The original $38.2 billion fiscal 2016 budget is expected to eventually total $38.4 billion with the inclusion of a year-end supplemental budget that a Baker administration official said will seek $150 million to $175 million for MassHealth, an amount the official said would be covered with federal funds.

The 2017 fiscal year begins Friday. Baker will have 10 days to review the budget and veto any spending or return sections with amendments.

After a drop in revenue estimates gave the conference committee a smaller pool of funds to work with, the final budget reduced proposed spending by $413 million from the spending bills passed by the House and Senate after shaving $750 million from revenue estimates.

“This is, in fact, a revenue problem,” Spilka said. “Our revenues are down, and we have to deal with that.”

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Katie Lannan

State House News Service
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The final budget reflects 2.7 percent revenue growth, Spilka said. She said the budget negotiators sought to trim proposed spending from areas that would have the “least impact” and to preserve priorities including local aid, education, protections for vulnerable residents and efforts to fight the opioid epidemic.

According to Spilka’s office, the money to fight the opioid epidemic includes $12.5 million for step-down recovery services, secure treatment, family intervention services, recovery high schools and the expansion of the nasal Narcan program; $1.1 million to continue a naltrexone pilot program; and $1 million for the substance abuse trust fund.