House leaders lower expectations for annual budget

Boston Statehouse

Normally a busy corridor that includes the Treasurer Goldberg’s offices and Auditor Bump’s offices, this hallway on the second floor of the State House now features dark doorways and deserted walkways. (Photo: Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS)

BOSTON (SHNS) – A special committee of House members met Wednesday to begin poring over some of the bills that lawmakers filed to help workers through the pandemic and as the economy reopens, but many members of the committee cautioned that it would be foolish to embrace new programs or benefits before they have a better idea of just how ugly the state budget picture is.

The Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee, led by House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, heard from House Revenue Committee Chairman Mark Cusack and House Labor and Workforce Development Committee Acting Chairman Stephan Hay about some of the pandemic-inspired bills their committees have been reviewing, including proposals to provide extra sick time, providing COVID-19 worker compensation protection to emergency response and medical personnel, and more.

Mariano said he hoped the special committee could compare the proposals “to where we actually are financially in the commonwealth today as we speak,” but noted that “there are certainly a bunch of unknowns that we can’t put numbers to and certainly the amount of federal help is one of those numbers.”

“Probably even the amount of revenue that we’re going to have is very, very uncertain,” he added.

Department of Revenue Commissioner Geoffrey Snyder backed that point up, telling the committee that in fiscal year 2021, which began July 1 with a temporary budget in place, “we are confronted with a sea of unknowns.”

“As is the case with fiscal 2020, tax collections in 2021 will vary depending on the status of public health measures enacted by the state, municipalities in the commonwealth, as well as the United States to mitigate the impact and breadth of COVID-19,” Snyder said. “The full impact COVID-19 has on consumer and corporate behavior, the economy, and the stock market is not yet fully clear.”

With so much uncertainty around the revenues that would form the foundation of the eventual fiscal year 2021 state budget, Cusack said it seems unwise to push ahead with proposals for relief that he said “range in cost anywhere from $50 million to $3.2 billion.”

“I’ll just simply say that, at least from where I sit, we can’t start rebuilding a house while it’s still on fire. Let’s put the fire out and figure out the extent of the damage before we try to, you know, come up with legislative tools to help fix this or different opinions on how to do that,” the Braintree Democrat said. “The revenue loss is real. It is incredibly significant and it is still ongoing and will be ongoing. And we’re going to be in pain here for a while. It’s gonna be a while too until we have the full picture of the revenue.”

The Revenue Committee chairman said initial projections of the state’s shortfall were around $2 billion, but “could be as high as $8 billion now.” He said that, because there are still many unknowns, “we really have no real good sense of how big the hole is that we are in and how we’re going to get out of it.”

In January, the Baker administration and legislative budget managers agreed that the fiscal 2021 budget would be built on $31.151 billion in state tax revenue. Though they have not officially updated that expectation, there is widespread agreement that it will not be met.

“Certainly, such a revision or adjustment is expected after critical pieces of information become more clear in the coming months,” Snyder said.

In lieu of a full-year budget, Beacon Hill appears prepared to adopt a series of temporary budgets, typically one month’s worth of spending at a time, until lawmakers decide to propose, debate and pass a permanent budget.

Rep. Sarah Peake, who is part of the House leadership team, said she was “flashing the yellow caution sign” because it would be premature to commit to new benefits or new programs without having a clear sense of the budget picture. She likened it to promising a non-profit funding and then having to make budget cuts.

“I don’t think we can take a scatter gun approach to this, I don’t think we can look at one bill in a vacuum and say, ‘yes, let’s move forward with this.’ There is so much need and such a finite amount of resources that I think we need to look at this in a global way and probably no one is going to be happy with what they quote-unquote get at the end of the day,” she said. “I think that the budget is going to be a difficult budget to draft, but maybe not a difficult budget to debate because there’s not a lot of room for people to add stuff into it.”

Mariano chimed in that, “to say that people are going to be disappointed, I think, is an understatement.”

Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he would like to see the Legislature prioritize local aid payments before embracing new benefits.

“We have to be extremely cautious in the middle of this pandemic to pass anything prematurely because if we ignore the priority of our cities and towns, the heart of which is that local aid, I think it’s going to have a really detrimental effect on all of our communities from border to border in the commonwealth,” Smola said. He added, “I can’t agree more with my colleagues who stress caution on the legislative initiatives proposed related to the pandemic. They’re good, they’re important, we should take them seriously, we should take them all under advisement, but I think we have to be very careful about making a rush to pass them now when we don’t know what the future holds.”

Among the bills discussed Wednesday was legislation (H 4700/S 2701) filed by Rep. Paul Donato and Sen. Jason Lewis that would provide 10 additional work days, or 80 hours, of job-protected, paid sick time for immediate use during the COVID-19 pandemic, for workers who were not covered under the extra sick time provisions of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Hay walked the committee through the pros and cons of the Donato/Lewis proposal as well as a bill (H 4739) filed Reps. Ken Gordon and Dave Rogers to create a presumption of relatedness for essential workers suffering from COVID-19 and a bill (H 4749) filed by Rep. Chris Hendricks to provide worker compensation protection to emergency response and medical personnel related to COVID-19 infections.

Wednesday’s committee meeting was not a traditional public hearing for those bills, and it was clear when lawmakers wrapped up that those proposals still have a long road ahead of them.

“We have to come to grips with the situation we’re in, and it’s not a good one,” Mariano said.

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