By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — It appears Gov. Deval Patrick may need to wait until next year for lawmakers to take up his request for $30 million to begin covering the costs associated with the handling of criminal cases impacted by breaches at the Hinton drug testing lab.
Republican lawmakers say the Legislature is unlikely over the next month to approve the request. While Patrick has attached some urgency to his request, any lawmaker meeting in informal sessions scheduled for the rest of 2012 can block the advancement of any bill.
Patrick formally met with Democratic leaders of the House and Senate last week for the first time in four months, seeking a commitment from both branches to bring the mid-year budget request forward for a vote “quickly.”
The governor left the meeting without any assurances that passage of his bill (H 4489) would be possible before the next Legislature is sworn in come January, when formal sessions and floor debates will resume.
“The governor met with the Democratic leadership. He’s never reached out to me in any substantive way to talk about this issue and I’m quite confident as presented the Republican caucus would have issues with it,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones said.
Patrick filed the budget request on Nov. 1 to begin paying for the fallout from the drug lab scandal involving a chemist who has admitted to tampering with evidence. Though the amount is only expected to cover a few months of expenses, the administration has said delays could strain agency budgets as they take on the added workload without scaling back normal operations.
The governor is asking for the funds to be put into a dedicated account to be managed by Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez and distributed as needed to various agencies.
Jones said he was hesitant to hand the administration a pool of money without spending controls, suggesting it might be appropriate for an independent authority to be placed in charge of dispersing the money. “We’re being asked to give this pool of money to A&F to basically oversee the cleanup of a mess they created,” Jones said.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr told the News Service it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to pass the budget request before the end of the year.
“I think the governor has a lot of work to do if he wants to get this passed in an informal session and that extends beyond meeting with the Senate president and the speaker,” Tarr said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Sen. Stephen Brewer were reluctant to discuss their plans, initially indicating they would not comment and referring questions to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.
“We’re still talking about it,” Brewer said after deflecting several questions.
Murray did not rule out bringing the budget bill to a vote, but acknowledged the obstacles during informal sessions when one lawmaker can block a bill for any reason. The budget bill would first have to clear the House.
“We would like to make it a clean supp budget and that might be difficult in an informal, but we’re still talking about it and if we can we will,” Murray told the News Service. By “clean,” Murray meant that it is her preference that funding be limited to expenses related to the crime lab and not unrelated appropriations sought by lawmakers.
Asked whether that meant it would be impossible to get done in December, Murray said, “I don’t know. We’re going to try.”
Patrick acknowledged that his bill faced an uphill climb toward passage before January, after which point in time the governor would have to refile an appropriation request with the Legislature and the price tag by then could be substantially higher.
“They understand the importance of that and I think they share my sense of urgency. I think the question is can it be done in an informal or formal? They didn’t say, but I think everyone agrees it’s important to get it done sooner rather than later,” Patrick said after meeting with leaders.
Already, district attorneys have suggested they would need $12.7 million to deal with the work of sifting through and dispensing with impacted cases, while public defenders have pegged their costs closer to $75 million.
The state’s official bond statement from September referenced the possibility of lawsuits that could further drive up costs.
“There may be significant, but as yet undetermined, state costs required to account for the chemist’s malfeasance. In addition, there may be costs to defend civil complaints alleging state liability in both state and federal court and for potential judgments. As neither the criminal investigation nor the determination of the number or specific cases affected has been completed, there is not sufficient information to estimate these additional state costs at this time,” the official statement to potential investors stated.
Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday that the State Police have requested $3.4 million from the supplemental budget to hire additional chemists to reduce a backlog of cases at the state drug lab in Sudbury.
“The ability for the State Police to draw from the $30 million provided in that supplemental budget request is absolutely critical. Further delay will only compound the backlog and the lab’s ability to return to normal operations,” Heffernan said.
Both Jones and Tarr said their one hesitation in waiting until after the new year is that Inspector General Glen Cuhna, who is conducting a review of the Hinton lab’s operations and has a limited budget, may be delayed in his work without additional funding.
Tarr wondered how the spending request would impact the state’s overall finances with the governor weighing mid-year budget cuts in light of declining revenue and the possibility that additional crime lab expenses would be required beyond the $30 million before the end of the fiscal year in June.
“There are going to be more tax proposals in the coming months than presents under the Christmas tree,” Tarr said.