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Presidential primary at risk under budget plan, Galvin says

The secretary of state is warning that proposed cuts to his office in Governor Charlie Baker’s budget would mean Massachusetts would not be able to hold its 2016 presidential primary, set for March 1.

“This country is scheduled to elect a new president next year. Apparently the governor only wants 49 states to vote; he doesn’t want this one,” said William F. Galvin, the state’s longtime top elections official, at a State House hearing Tuesday about the governor’s budget proposal.

Galvin said Baker had “drastically underfunded” the elections budget and, should the Legislature not give his office more money for the upcoming fiscal year, the state will not be able to afford to hold the scheduled presidential primary.

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Budget season is always filled with leaders of many parts of state government loudly proclaiming doom, often part of a strategy to encourage lawmakers to increase their funding.

Sometimes the grim predictions come to pass. Sometimes they do not.

Baker’s budget proposal, rolled out last week, funds elections division administration at $5.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which runs from July 2015 through June 2016.

That is significantly less than the $8.2 million that Galvin said he requested for that part of his office, and just slightly less than was spent in the 2012 fiscal year — $5.75 million — which covered the last presidential primary election, according to figures on the governor’s budget office website.

Galvin, a Democrat, said funding for elections is cyclical and he is not asking for what elections division administration is projected to spend this fiscal year, which included primary and general elections.

But, he said, costs are increasing. Among them are new responsibilities for the office under an early-voting law and the potential for printing more primary ballots because there are more officially recognized political parties in the state.

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Galvin said that when his office sought some clarification from the administration after seeing the budget numbers, “we were greeted with babble-speak.”

Then, with disdain, the secretary said, “They told us they reached the election decisions by using algorithms. Well, I’ve never run an election based on algorithms, and I don’t think they could, either.”

He said there were alternatives to a state-backed primary: presidential caucuses or primaries financed by political parties. But he supports keeping the presidential primary the way it is.

The funding for the coming fiscal year will cover the presidential primary and some preparation for the state primary and the general election, which are set to take place later, in the subsequent fiscal year.

A Baker spokeswoman underscored what the administration sees as a massive budget shortfall as well as the minimal funding difference between the Baker proposal and what was spent in 2012.

“Given the $1.8 billion deficit left behind by the previous administration, belt tightening was required across state government,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement.

“Governor Baker is pleased to propose the same level of funding for the secretary of state as in the last presidential primary year along with investments in public education and assistance for the working poor,” she said.

Other top officials also testified at the hearing, which was attended by a number of state representatives and senators.

Kristen Lepore, Baker’s budget chief, spoke about the broad sweep of the administration’s $38.1 billion spending plan. But she was repeatedly questioned on the administration’s pension-sweetening proposal, which is aimed at enticing certain state workers to retire early.

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The administration estimates 4,500 people would take advantage of the program, should the Legislature approve it, saving the state a net of $178 million in the new fiscal year.

That’s after accounting for costs including backfilling a fraction of newly vacant positions (up to a certain limit in total compensation costs to ensure savings for the state).

The program would be open only to employees in the executive department — a broad swath of the bureaucracy — who meet certain eligibility requirements.

In the hearing, Lepore appeared opposed to the idea of opening the proposed program to other parts of state government, as some have suggested, because, she testified, she would not have control over how many of those newly open positions outside the executive department were filled.

And that could do away with the savings, the main point of the plan in the first place.

The overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature will have the final say on the Republican administration’s budget.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.