Massachusetts often touts itself as being first on the list of public school test scores and tops when it comes to professional sports teams, but the state is dead last on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers still haven’t agreed on a state budget and sent it for the governor’s signature more than two weeks after the end of the fiscal year.
In fact, Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t yet have a budget for the year.
Legislative leaders met with Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday afternoon after a weekend of trying to reach agreement on the budget and a handful of bills being negotiated between the House and Senate.
This impasse marks a rare moment for Speaker Robert DeLeo, who maintains firm control of the House and likes to wrap things up neatly. Even the governor expressed concern to a State House News Service reporter, saying he’s worried the budget talks could push some of his priorities off the table for this legislative session.
So what if the state budget is late? Why should this matter to Bay State residents, many of whom care little about the workings of their state government or have grown used to things being done behind closed doors, with the finished product popping out for a confirming vote, like a loaf of fresh bread from the oven.
Formal legislative sessions are scheduled to end July 31, which puts some urgency on getting the budget – and some important bills — passed. On top of that, the Senate is moving toward a transition from Harriette Chandler to Karen Spilka as president — a switch slated for July 26, just days before the formal session ends. The News Service reported “there is grumbling in the House” to the effect “the internal Senate politics surrounding Spilka’s ascension are playing a role in the budget showdown,” which Spilka denies.
All of the negotiations on the $41.5 billion consensus budget are done in private, of course, which makes it harder for fledgling lawmakers, Beacon Hill observers and ordinary taxpayers to know much of what’s going on.
The governor could end up the winner in all this, since he could hold onto any spending bill legislators send him late in the month, giving lawmakers less time in the formal session to override any Baker vetoes.
Baker also could file an interim budget – a monthly package called a “one-twelfth budget” to keep the ship moving forward until lawmakers reach agreement. If either of those scenarios happen and Baker is seen as the white knight, Democrats, who are in the majority in both the House and Senate, could rightly face criticism from voters in the fall who may remember the failure to pass a state budget on time more than they would remember the success of individual bills or funds brought home to the district for local projects.
After the meeting Monday with DeLeo and Chandler, the governor noted that a state budget can be modified during the year once officials tally actual state revenues compared to the projected revenues.
“The budget is a document that the ink’s dry on the day you sign it and then you make adjustments based on facts as they become available,” Baker told The Associated Press after the meeting. “I fully expect that will be the case with this one as well.”
The governor did say he was concerned the budget debate is taking focus away from important bills, including one to help address the state’s ongoing opioid overdose epidemic.
Whether the budget is passed and signed before July 31 is yet to be seen. But this instance of both branches in the Legislature seemingly tangled up as they roll toward the July 31 end of the formal session does little to polish any attempt at pretending there is bipartisanship on Beacon Hill and cooperation between the chambers. Voters should watch closely and remember to press for explanations from their local lawmakers when the campaigning begins in earnest for the fall election.