Senate Ways and Means Chairman still planning for more than $16 billion interim October budget

Boston Statehouse
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BOSON (SHNS) – The House and Senate may be getting ready in unprecedented economic times to attempt to do in three weeks what would ordinarily take three months, according to the Senate’s top budget writer. That would be to draft and put an annual state budget on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

But exactly how the Legislature would accomplish this feat remains to be explained.

The House and Senate Ways and Means committees, along with Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan, plan to welcome back a slate of economic experts and fiscal prognosticators next week for the second time during the pandemic to help them forecast tax revenues for the last nine months of the fiscal year.

After that hearing, the leadership on Beacon Hill will need to agree to a revised tax estimate for fiscal 2021 and build spending plans around that anticipated revenue. The assumption is that forecasts will have improved since April when experts were predicting as much as $6 billion in lost tax revenue.

But in a typical year, the act of formulating a revenue estimate usually takes a month, following by the governor filing a budget in January. The House in April then releases and debates its version of the governor’s budget, followed by the Senate in May. Each of those debates usually takes about three or four days apiece. That leaves about a month – and sometimes longer – for a conference committee of negotiators from both branches to iron out many budget differences and send the governor a consensus budget for his review.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues confirmed to the News Service Monday that it’s his intention that all of those steps will be finished by Oct. 31, when a more than $16 billion interim budget authorization expires.

“Our idea is to get it done by the end of October. I’m here today. I’m here every day. We are working,” Rodrigues said as he exited the Senate chamber, wearing a Westport Wildcats cloth face mask.

Rodrigues said no decision has been made on whether House and Senate leadership will try to pre-negotiate a budget before presenting it to their full membership for amendments, but the Westport Democrat said leaders are hoping to avoid having to pass another interim budget. Senate Democrats plan a caucus on Thursday, and no one outside of Rodrigues, including no one from the House, has outlined any sort of time frame for consideration of a budget.

With the revenue roundtable planned for next Wednesday, the Legislature would have a little more than three full weeks after hearing from economists to finish its budget. It’s a stretch that coincides with the buildup to the November election when legislators would otherwise be focused on their own reelections, or campaigning for colleagues and other candidates for state and federal office.

Passing something as large and complex as a state budget in such a tight timeframe would also require a level of cooperation between the leadership of the two Democrat-controlled chambers unseen during this first session of Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka working together.

Gov. Baker last week said his administration has been working closely with legislative leaders, and expressed confidence in being able to “work our way through” the current fiscal year. But Baker’s comments came during the same press conference that he ripped into Congress for failing to compromise on a new round of coronavirus stimulus spending that would send aid back to states.

Rodrigues, who has suggested the state will need to draw heavily from its $3.5 billion cash reserve, said state lawmakers can’t wait on Congress for much longer.

“It’s getting less certain that we’re going to have any sort of help from the feds at all. And that’s critical. That’s something we were hoping, back in July, for certainty from the the feds. Unfortunately down in D.C., they’re not working, so we will work up here,” Rodrigues said.

The Legislature punted on trying to devise a full-year spending plan while in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, and extended its session indefinitely past July 31 knowing that the budget would have to be dealt with before the end of the year.

Senate leadership also told members that they may be called back to vote on emergency COVID-19 legislation or one of the five conference committee reports — police reform, economic development, health care, transportation borrowing and climate change – if and when deals are reached.

“None of those are on the horizon as we speak, the budget being probably the closest,” said Rodrigues, whose committee processes most bills — with the exception of conference committee reports — before they land on the Senate floor for consideration.

So how does the Ways and Means chairman expect to finalize a budget in just three weeks?

“We’ll see. Good question. I’ll have to make sure I eat my Wheaties,” Rodrigues said.

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