As Massachusetts Revenues Trail Expectations, The Budget Trimming Commences

Mar 4, 2019

Last week, Massachusetts House lawmakers unanimously passed a $135 million midyear spending bill. It was the first major piece of legislation that was taken up in the new session. 

The bill represents about $30 million less in spending, though, than requested by Governor Charlie Baker. Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to break it down.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: What are some of the programs that got sheared?

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: So, with House Speaker DeLeo and the new chair of Ways and Means in the House, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, both said that they wanted to keep this bill restricted to those programs that were either coming close to running out of money, or had some unfunded liabilities that they needed money to pay for.

And so what that meant was that there were programs like $5 million for a fentanyl interdiction program that Gov. Charlie Baker was looking for to help regional efforts to kind of get at the fentanyl trafficking and fight some of the overdose epidemic going on. That was cut out of the budget. There were other areas as well that got trimmed back, such as about half the amount of money, $8 million when the governor was seeking $16 million, for the processing of sexual assault evidence kits and some of these programs like that. 

Meanwhile, they certainly upped spending on low-income heating assistance because this is something that they were hearing from members that was a big need particularly at the end of the winter and as people have exhausted their benefits. So, instead of the $11 million that the governor was seeking, they up that to $30 million to offset some cuts in the federal program.

So, some spending was up some was down and overall the speaker said that he wanted to take a bit of a conservative approach, though [it was] still $135 million in new spending at a time when state revenues are off at the moment by about $400 million.

And looking to the future budget, are hearings actually set to begin this week?

They certainly are. Both the House and Senate Ways and Means committees are getting together to kick off this process. It's going to take about a month and it's starting today, actually, here at the Statehouse., kicking off with the administration explaining their budget and going through it. We're also going to hear from the constitutional officers: Treasurer Deb Goldberg, Secretary of State Bill Galvin, Auditor Suzanne Bump, and others, Attorney General Maura Healey, and the Inspector General is also expected to testify.

And then [the committee is] going to go on the road. The committee will be visiting places in and around Boston, as well as Worcester, Springfield and Fall River, as they break out parts of this budget and have hearings around the state.

As part of the grand bargain reached last legislative session, a paid family medical leave program was signed into law by the governor. The details aren't all worked out, although we do know that employers are going to be assessed an additional payroll tax starting in a few months to fund the program. What are the next steps?

Yes. So the payroll tax will be going into effect and then the program itself, with the paid leave, kicking off in 2021. But in order to facilitate this, the state needs to get this new [Department of Family and Medical Leave] up and running. And they are looking to have this open and fully staffed by the summer. So, then the question becomes, where do these people work? And you know, we've heard from Senator Eric Lesser and others in the western Mass delegation, that they're urging the Governor to put some of these jobs out in that part of the state.

Have business groups talked about the ramifications of yet another tax come July 1st?

Yeah, I mean, they were obviously concerned during this whole debate last year and last session. When proponents of it were threatening to go to the ballot, it appeared very popular. And this got rolled into an agreement over the minimum wage and paid family leave and then some other things regarding overtime and stuff to help businesses.

So this was part of a bargain that businesses cut knowing that the program itself seemed very popular among the electorate and looked -- at least according to polling -- poised to pass. But it is just another thing that businesses say have added to their cost of doing business and, you know, it will be pointed to again this session if the legislature or the governor puts any new business taxes on the table to help pay for new investment.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.