The State Budget: The $40-Billion-Plus Reason Why You Vote

February 6, 2018

At the State House, nearly every political rally, speech or proclamation can be rendered meaningless if there isn't funding to back it up. So when lawmakers opened a series of marathon hearings Tuesday on how to spend over $40 billion, it began a process that's at the core of everything state government is and does.

Gov. Charlie Baker offered a spending plan last month that weighed in just shy of $41 billion dollars. Baker's aims to run the state, with as much Republican thrift as he thinks he can get away with in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts.

But it's not Republicans like Baker that control the Commonwealth's, it's the Democrats that dominate both houses of the Legislature. Stronger than expected tax collections throughout January could lead wishful-thinking Democrats to the conclusion that they'll have more money than expected to spend on projects they support like schools, local aid, raining day savings, and yes, pet projects and earmarks.

Through multiple hearings across the state with each government agency, House Reps and Senators will work up their own budget plan that, revenue-willing, might creep up past that $41 billion mark.

The House and Senate Ways and Means Committees are currently assessing, scrutinizing and dissecting Baker's budget bill. In the process, they asked Baker's top budget writer, Michael Heffernan, about federal funds the state relies on, and which could be altered by Congress or the Trump administration at any point.

"We monitor it very carefully to make sure that we know of anything coming down the pike. And we try to be as careful as possible to plan. Again we're using less than three percent growth for our budget for next year which we think is quite conservative," Heffernan told Ways and Means chairs Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) and Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain.)

Three percent might be too conservative for some Democratic lawmakers, who will likely add to some accounts as they craft their own version of the budget this spring.

Through Tuesday's hearing, agency and state department heads appointed by Baker adhered to the more conservative plans of their boss's budget. But other elected officials want more than what the Baker recommends, offering a live preview of sorts to the parade of colleagues, interest groups, constituents and lobbyists that will throw themselves at the mercy of Spilka and Sanchez in the closed-door meetings that decide what goes into the Democrat's final budget.

Attorney General Maura Healey asked for $1.2 million dollars more this year, telling lawmakers that her office's work on wage enforcement, opiate treatment and medicaid fraud investigation saves the Commonwealth money.

"I'm hoping that the committee will act favorably on those requests. As I mentioned, for every dollar invested in my office, we are returning $17 to the state, to ratepayers, to consumers and to the general fund," Healey said.

Secretary of State William Galvin came before Ways and Means with a  warning that the Trump administration could be deliberately underfunding the 2020 census in order to miscount the number of people in Massachusetts. By underpaying for census workers to reach out to immigrants and transient college students, Galvin says Trump will undermine blue states like Massachusetts, meaning the state won't get it's fair share of federal dollars or Congressional representation.

"The Trump administration intends to politicize this census. They are clearly setting us up for a shortfall in states such as Massachusetts with some of the policies they're considering and have already implemented. I say nothing less than sabotaging it for states like Massachusetts," Galvin said.

Galvin wants Democrats to increase funding for his office over what Gov. Baker is recommending to offset any federal shortfall. Baker has budgeted $581,000 for Galvin to contract with UMass Amherst's Donahue Institute for assistance with the census, but the secretary hopes Democratic lawmakers will provide $1 million.

Galvin isn't suggesting that Baker is coordinating with Trump to discourage an accurate census. But he does think the Baker administration is being too tight.

"I think in their zeal to reduce expenditures, they're overlooking the fact that this could really have a devastating effect on our political representation and money, in particular on communities that have significant numbers of immigrants or college students,"

Galvin's testimony highlighted how important federal aid is to the state's overall budget. Only a little over $27 billion of the $40 billion budget comes from taxes and other revenue raised by the state. The feds are responsible for the bulk of the remaining $13 billion, much coming in the form of health care funds.

Galvin said an inaccurate census "means less money...If you don't have the people to prove that you're eligible, you're going to get less money."

"Less money for education, less money for transportation, for all the things we get money for from the federal government... and deserve.  We should not be shortchanged," Galvin said.

 


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