BOSTON — Lawmakers often load up the state budget with millions of dollars for local projects, but the economic fallout from the coronavirus means there's likely to be little pork in next year's spending package.
The state is running on a three-month, $16.5 billion budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday that keeps the government funded until Oct. 31 when the Legislature is expected to consider a final spending plan for fiscal 2021.
Beacon Hill watchdogs say there will be little money for local pork in the next budget.
"There's really no money for projects," said Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "The Legislature is facing what we've estimated to be a $6 billion shortfall, and they will be forced to make drastic cuts to existing programs if federal assistance doesn't come through."
"So getting funding for new and expanded projects into the budget will be exceedingly difficult," she added.
Lawmakers said they know money will be tighter than in previous budget cycles, even as they stress the importance of earmarks to their districts.
Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, is among those who said he won't be seeking to get local earmarks into the budget.
"I've had luck with some earmarks in previous years, and they've helped some really needed projects," he said. "But I won't be seeking any earmarks while we're in the midst of this pandemic. The resources are scarce and there's too many people hurting. We need to put that money into COVID relief and other priorities."
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, echoes those sentiments. He and other lawmakers are seeking money for a public notification system of sewage spills into waterways such as the Merrimack River, but he won't be pushing for other projects.
"I just don't think this is a year for local earmarks," he said.
Earmarks often seek to trim costs for cash-strapped local governments or to fill holes anticipated by changes in the federal government.
Lawmakers defend the set-asides as one of the few ways of roping in additional state money for their communities since the executive branch largely controls one-time expenses. The state also doles out more than $1.1 billion a year in local aid to communities.
Critics of earmarks, including fiscal watchdogs, argue that they encourage patronage and waste.
Budgetary constraints haven't kept lawmakers from getting local initiatives funded.
A $1.8 billion bond for information technology that passed the Senate last month was stuffed with tens of millions of dollars worth of earmarks for local communities.
Among them: $2 million for Northern Essex Community College and Lawrence to convert the former Saint Anne's Church into a cultural arts center; $250,000 for Lawrence to retrofit police cruisers; $250,000 for North Shore Community College's Lynn campus; and $50,000 for the design of Gloucester's new wastewater treatment plant.
Lawmakers point out that earmarks in that bill only authorized borrowing. The spending still must be approved by the governor.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.