After Vetoes, Masterpiece or Mess from Charlie Budget Hands?…
Nearly a week after Gov. Charlie Baker signed the budget, the Massachusetts House of Representatives has begun undoing some of the millions of dollars in cuts Bakers made last Friday. The Senate shall follow.
The governor vetoed some $412 million in spending and proposed alternative language for other sections of the budget. Vexing legislators and advocacy groups across the commonwealth, Baker’s cuts and reductions queued up a series of overrides and challenges to the governor that have been rare since he took office in 2015.
On the one hand, Baker’s desire to cut so much is reasonable and fat likely existed. Already, the budget was thought to face a half-billion dollar deficit due to sluggish tax collections. Some of those fears may subside as the stock market recovers from Brexit’s shock. But, unlike poor Edward, Baker’s cuts have not yielded anything beautiful but rather something jumbled and unsystematic.
The oddities of Baker’s budget moves extended to changes to the outside sections—non-spending laws and goodies appended to the bill. He returned Democratic Senator Eric Lesser’s east-west rail study to the legislature with broader language to include not only other stakeholders—encompassing, by implication, motor coach magnate Peter Picknelly—but a review of transportation in Western Mass overall.
General budget cuts hit Western Mass in noteworthy ways, perhaps underminding some who criticized other items in the budget. Many state departments suffered a 1% cut including district attorneys’ offices statewide. The Hampden District Attorney’s office sustained a $95,000 or 1% of the budget, roughly equal to the annual salary of two assistant district attorneys.
If any pattern to the more specific vetoes—as opposed to reductions—existed, the governor apparently zeroed out pet projects and earmarks. That seemed to include items to stem the state’s opiate crisis, odd given the praise Baker has received for addressing the matter.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s office lost nearly $577,000 to Baker’s veto pen. About $145,000 of that is the 1% cut Baker imposed on all sheriffs’ departments, but the rest was for a regional opiate task force and intervention education for the public.
When asked by The Republican about the Franklin County funds, a spokesperson for the Department of Administration & Finance sidestepped specifics, but noted the difficult budget environment.
Over $1.7 million was cut from the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, nearly all of it earmarks for specific programs. Baker, as a matter of policy, could be trying to control where substance abuse funds go, rather than having them be legislatively committed. However, some earmarks were left alone.
Below a $50,000 cut to Veterans, Inc. for a Shrewsbury treatment clinic, another $50,000 was preserved. That money was set aside for a South Short pilot program of Drug Story Theater, a program that helps recovering teens educate their peers.
Beyond the opiate crisis, another cut that provoked a strong response was Baker’s halving of the $14 million allocation for the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
63.5% of the legislature opposes Governor Baker's 55% cut of the @masscultural budget https://t.co/XivlbVwzL0
— Ben Downing (@BenDowningMA) July 14, 2016
Others cuts were problematic if not necessarily due to their inconsistency. Baker slashed $589,000 from salaries at the Committee for Public Council Services. Should that affect provision of counsel for indigent defendants, the state may end up paying that money anyway. Right to counsel is guaranteed under the Massachusetts and US constitutions.
In Springfield, another veto cut $500,000 from the UMass Center in Springfield. Half of that amount was earmarked for a center on racial justice and urban affairs at the center, a satellite campus of UMass-Amherst. The other half would come from the Towersquare-based facility’s bottom line.
The compromise budget had to hastily adjust to downgrades in projected revenues, using techniques panned by budget watchdogs. But Baker’s scattershot vetoes won him few accolades. Were revenue to fall short, cuts may occur anyway.
One solution is more revenue, but the governor and the House have already squelched that. But as reps reverse Baker’s cuts, they may need to consider modest revenue enhancements as the Senate has.