Budget’s very late but Spilka sees “wisdom in waiting”

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Without revealing how the Legislature would respond to the revised annual spending plan Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled last week, Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday praised Beacon Hill’s decision to “hit pause” on the state budget process.

Delaying negotiations about the fiscal year 2021 state budget from the usual springtime schedule, she said, allowed legislative leaders and the Baker administration to get a clearer sense of how the pandemic will impact the state’s financial outlook before deciding on how to close any shortfall.

The delay has also meant Massachusetts is one of the last states without a budget so deep into the fiscal year.

Baker’s updated budget anticipates a $3.6 billion drop in tax receipts compared to his pre-pandemic version, a smaller gap than the $4 billion to $6 billion economists forecast earlier this year.

“We did not have an idea of where our revenue would be, nor if there was going to be more federal stimulus dollars or how much,” Spilka told business leaders in a keynote address hosted by the MetroWest Visitors Bureau. “We now know that, while bleak, I believe there was wisdom in waiting because the budget situation is not nearly as bad as some had predicted in April.”

Massachusetts is more than three months into fiscal year 2021, and state government has been operating on temporary budgets since the July 1 start of fiscal 2021. An interim budget will cover operations through the end of the month, and Baker said he intends to file another temporary spending plan to cover November.

Last week, the governor unveiled an updated $45.5 billion version of his FY21 budget proposal, calling for about $900 million more in spending and use of $1.35 billion from the state’s “rainy day” savings fund and $1.8 billion in extra, one-time federal funding.

Baker’s plan does not anticipate any additional federal stimulus and does not call for broad-based tax hikes.

The governor said last week he wants to receive a final bill before Thanksgiving, which means the House and Senate would need to substantially accelerate their typical pattern of debating their versions over a two-month period and then privately negotiating a compromise for another month or two.

Both chambers’ Ways and Means committees are hearing testimony Wednesday on Baker’s budget proposal, but legislative leaders have yet to lay out a plan for handling the issue.

Spilka said the Legislature is “ready to move forward with our budget process,” but didn’t offer any details on how the branches would tackle the issue.

Legislative leaders have not indicated if they plan to pursue tax hikes as part of their budget plan, a step that Baker said last week he would veto, or cut spending in any other ways beyond the governor’s proposal.

While she praised the Massachusetts Senate’s bipartisanship, Democrats hold super-majorities in both branches and Spilka shed no new light on why Democrats haven’t been able to strike deals on major pieces of legislation that were assigned to conference committees nearly three months ago.

Since late July and early August, bills aiming to implement major policing reforms, authorize $18 billion in borrowing for transportation projects, spur economic development, address climate change, and increase access to health care have been mired in private conference committees, each of which features two Democrats and one Republican from either chamber.

The Senate is “laser-focused” on COVID response and economic recovery, Spilka said Wednesday, noting that she believes quick progress on economic recovery is possible if the state can avoid another major surge in cases.

“We are also looking at vital issues such as the state budget, racial justice, health care, and major climate change legislation that sets a 2050 net-zero target,” she added, referring to the bills that both branches passed months ago.

Spilka highlighted several grant programs included in the economic development bill aimed at supporting small businesses, restaurants, tourism and cultural facilities during the pandemic.

“Once this kicks in, we’re hoping that many of you can take advantage of this,” she said. “I encourage you, please feel free to contact your senator and your representative to encourage them to preserve these initiatives in the final bill.”

With the restaurant industry reeling during the pandemic and many restaurants closing down for good, the Senate president highlighted the Legislature’s decision to allow expanded restaurant service outdoors during the pandemic and to permit restaurants to sell cocktails to go.

An agreement between legislative leaders and the administration to protect local aid from cuts this fiscal year — reached in July ahead of the still-unfolding budget process — provided “certainty and critical support” for municipalities and school districts, Spilka said.

Asked about the partisan contrast between Washington and Beacon Hill, Spilka said she has a good working relationship Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, whose Republican caucus in the Senate includes just four members.

“I speak to Bruce when we’re in session several times a week. I talk to him, try to have no surprises, get his thoughts on things,” Spilka said. “I think so much of it is just basic respect and courtesy to another colleague. We work really well together. We don’t always agree, and that’s fine — I don’t always agree with all the Democrats in the Senate.”

“You’re never going to agree all the time with 40 people, but it’s respect and courtesy and making sure that we work together,” she added.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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