Policy differences may delay budget accord, DeLeo says

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/06/15/policy-differences-may-delay-budget-accord-deleo-says/

BOSTON – Acknowledging a sudden erosion in the state budget’s fiscal underpinnings just before the budget is due, House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday said policy differences between the House and Senate loom as an even larger obstacle to a budget accord that’s due in two weeks.

Talking to reporters after a closed Democratic caucus, DeLeo said the House budget (H 4201) included close to 100 outside sections while the Senate’s spending plan (S 2305) featured nearly 300 budget riders, including many calling for policy changes unrelated to appropriations.

“I look at a budget as just that, trying to figure out what the fiscal situation’s going to be for the following year,” DeLeo said. “I think there’s probably a lot of policy issues and I’m not sure how resolute the Senate is in trying to push all of those. My idea would be that those are best left to committee and should be addressed at committee and not in the budget. I’m more concerned about that delaying the process really, than the figures.”

Policy proposals added to the budget bill by senators include a ban on “single use” plastic bags at chain stores and large retailers, a waiver of medical marijuana registration fees for veterans, and an MBTA fare hike cap of 5 percent over two years, along with measures dealing with teacher evaluations, retiree health care premiums and mid-level dental practitioners.

Senators this session have chafed over the joint committee process in which House members exercise more control over the flow of bills. A spat between the branches flared just after the 2015 start of the session when the House dug in against rules reforms that senators said would give them easier access to their policy measures and prevent them from being buried in House-controlled committees.

Senate leaders subsequently initiated several special committees to draft policy proposals, but with formal sessions winding down senators also used the budget as a vehicle to attach policy measures.

Beacon Hill leaders appear to have been caught off guard by the tax revenue impacts of the stock market slowdown of 2015, which cut into capital gains taxes paid on investment gains.

Tax collections for fiscal 2016, which ends June 30, are now estimated to run $320 million to $370 million below forecasts used to build the budget. Looking ahead, tax collections to support the proposed $39.5 billion fiscal 2017 budgets are expected to fall short by $450 million to $750 million, according to the Baker administration, which has been trying to hold the line on spending throughout the executive branch in the face of sagging revenue reports that began to hit this year.

DeLeo plans to meet Wednesday afternoon with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey, but said he believes the tax revenue estimate used by state officials to build the fiscal 2017 budget needs to change. “I think it has to be adjusted. That’s going to be my advice on it,” he said.

While disclosing updated projections on Tuesday, the Baker administration has not officially changed the state’s revenue estimate for fiscal 2016 or fiscal 2017, according to an administration official.

The overly optimistic revenue projections were derived based on testimony from so-called “top economists and folks,” said DeLeo, who added that global economic conditions were “having a ripple effect here in the United States” and compounding problems with tax collections on unearned income.

DeLeo said it’s not the time to discuss tax and fee increases to shore up fiscal 2017 revenues.

“I think we have to play with what we have before us,” DeLeo said.

Lawmakers held a public hearing Wednesday on Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to rein in sick leave benefit policies that critics believe are too generous. DeLeo said the issue is one that lawmakers have to address, but said he doubted they would this session.

“I think we’ve got enough issues, namely with the latest budget shortfall, that we have to address,” he said. “I’m not sure whether we would be able to address that in sufficient time.”

Written by Michael P. Norton