Lawmakers considering novel budget approaches
With time short, interim budget under consideration
IN A TYPICAL YEAR, it takes six months of back and forth for the House, Senate and administration to agree on a state budget. This year, could they cut a deal behind closed doors?
With two weeks left before the end of the fiscal year, no budget is in sight. And instead of the usual process, policymakers are floating the idea of an interim budget – one that may be agreed on by the House, Senate, and administration before it is released.
Independent experts say the different approach may be a reasonable one, given the pandemic – although it could have implications for things like transparency and debate. “These are really unusual times, so I’m not surprised to see legislators reaching for unusual approaches,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.
In late May, the State House News Service reported that Senate President Karen Spilka suggested the possibility of a joint House-Senate approach to budgeting. “I am hoping that we can have a joint agreement of the Senate, the House, and the administration, through [the Executive Office for Administration and Finance], on a path to take for the budget,” she said. “I think that it makes no sense for us to independently do budgets and then have a conference committee, but to just cut to the chase and just get some kind of budget done, particularly for July and then see how things go.”
The chairs of the ways and means committees – Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues — have been quiet about their plans.
“We continue to work with our colleagues in the House and administration, and we are hopeful that we will be able to produce a budget very soon that is thoughtful and responsible,” Rodrigues said in a statement.
Blake Webber, chief of staff to Michlewitz, said, “We are working closely with the Senate and the administration to assess the uncertain economic outlook, any potential further federal aid packages, and how best to address the FY21 budget process. We will continue these productive conversations for the foreseeable future.”
But behind the scenes, state policymakers appear to be discussing a budget that is done jointly and for an interim time period, although the exact length is uncertain.
On the short end, doing an interim budget through July or August would give lawmakers a chance to see if Congress passes another federal stimulus bill before the August recess. It would also let the Department of Revenue collect last year’s state income taxes, since the deadline for filing was extended from April 15 to July 15.
On the longer end, there could be a political incentive to craft a budget that goes through November, so lawmakers do not have to pass a full-year austerity budget before they face reelection. Doing a budget for just half a year could also give lawmakers more time to monitor medical advances and know, for example, when a vaccine might become available, which could allow for a fuller economic reopening.
Under normal circumstances, Horowitz said there is an advantage to having a robust debate as the budget bounces between bodies. But he said that may be less necessary this year. “There’s so much uncertainty and so little known information, I think the quality and significance of open debate is really diminished,” Horowitz said. “To say nothing of the fact that legislators are still struggling with ways to do meaningful in-person debates.”
Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the tight time frame – with only two weeks left before the June 30 end of the fiscal year – means it might make sense to bypass the multiple iterations that a budget typically goes through, as it goes from the governor to the House to the Senate. If there is a joint agreement, McAnneny said, “The biggest advantage is the speed at which they’d be able to enact it.”
But, McAnneny cautioned, “It does assume there would be consensus on a lot of what could be controversial choices.” For example, lawmakers will have to decide how much money to set aside for schools, in what was supposed to be the first year of implementation of a new, more expensive school funding formula.
Continuing current funding levels also may not make sense with revenues expected to significantly decline.Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said there is an urgent need for budget writers to get some information out, as municipalities and school districts are starting to lay off staff due to budget crunches. “The lack of information isn’t helpful at this point for municipalities and departments and agencies to make budget decisions,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the most important thing about the process, however it is done, is that it be transparent with an opportunity for advocates and the public to weigh in. “There’s definitely a sense of urgency…but there also needs to be some level of transparency and some processes that would be democratic, with participatory conversations around the budget,” Rivera said.