Happy New Fiscal Year … But Still No Budget

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/07/04/happy-new-fiscal-year-but-still-no-budget/

By Michael P. Norton

BOSTON — While it lacks the flair of the situation in New Jersey, Massachusetts is still without a state budget three days into its new fiscal year.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made headlines Monday when he was photographed relaxing on a state beach while public beaches in his state are closed due to the budget stalemate there. Hours later, there were reports of a tentative budget deal in New Jersey, although it was not clear whether all parties were on board with it.

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker, who endorsed Christie before the New Jersey governor dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, has kept a low profile over the holiday weekend. Baker did not release a public schedule for Monday or Tuesday and is cooperating with Democratic lawmakers as they work on an overdue budget — Democrats hold super majorities in both branches and can largely dictate spending and policy without partisan considerations.

Lawmakers had hoped to finish work by Friday on a bill making changes to the voter-approved recreational marijuana law. A new state budget was supposed to be in place on Saturday. Instead, Baker and the Legislature passed a temporary budget to pay the bills while legislative talks continued into July.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday he wished he could discuss differences of opinion between the House and Senate, but said he can’t discuss that.

The Massachusetts House met for four minutes Monday morning before calling it a day. Afterwards, state Representative Paul Donato of Medford said that even though a deal on the budget is not ready, “I think the budget conference is very, very close.”

Donato, the second assistant majority leader, told the News Service he expects the marijuana conference committee to resume meeting on Wednesday. “And we’re anticipating if they’re successful on the marijuana that we’ll do it Thursday or Friday.”

Donato said he found it encouraging that House and Senate negotiators were talking to each other over the weekend and reporting progress.

After holding its session open Friday with the hope that deals would be reached, the Senate called it quits for the weekend and won’t return ’til Wednesday.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo was on Beacon Hill on Monday and participated in reading the Frederick Douglass address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Afterwards, DeLeo said “talks haven’t been cut off” and “people are trying to come to a conclusion on both of these major pieces of legislation.”

“I’m always concerned about trying to give definitive dates in terms of making promises,” DeLeo said when asked if deals would be reached this week.

DeLeo contrasted Massachusetts with Maine, where there’s a partial government shutdown due to the budget impasse there, saying Massachusetts had the “foresight” to pass a $5.15 billion interim budget when it looked like the annual state budget was not going to get done on time.

“I think that this year, with the financial situation being what it is, I think all states are trying to grapple, trying to get final budgets,” DeLeo said.

Massachusetts lawmakers have had a relatively unproductive session so far this year. Aside from agreeing at the start of the session on a bill delivering pay raises to public officials, including themselves, lawmakers have been holding committee hearings and focusing on the marijuana and budget bills.

Baker and the Legislature this year based their fiscal year 2018 spending bills on a 3.9 percent increase in tax revenues, but collections through 11.5 months of fiscal 2017 are up by 1.4 percent. A revenue downgrade, and corresponding budget adjustments, are likely forcing some major decisions in negotiations.

Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Massachusetts’s credit rating, citing inadequate progress toward rebuilding the state’s rainy day fund reserves.

On Friday, the eve of the new fiscal year, Baker said he wasn’t overly concerned with the reality that the new fiscal year would begin Saturday, July 1 without a finalized budget in place, in part because of the existence of an interim budget.

“Some years the budget lands on June 22, some years it lands on July 22, some years it lands on August 22. The commonwealth stills manages to find a way to function,” Baker said.

In some ways, Baker said, the conference committee process is as much a “black hole” for him as it is the general public. “Our role in this is to provide them with information as they ask for it, and that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing,” he said.

[Sam Doran contributed reporting]