A surprising reversal by Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg on Wednesday prompted a wave of political backpedaling and finger-pointing on Beacon Hill that further complicated the issue of funding overdue raises for University of Massachusetts employees.
Rosenberg appeared to startle other officials when he announced he had struck an agreement with UMass president Martin T. Meehan to fight for an extra $10.9 million the university said it needs to fill a budget deficit as a result of the raises.
That came a day after Rosenberg, usually viewed as a key UMass supporter, faced criticism for failing to secure $10.9 million to cover the raises in a spending bill sent to the governor a week ago.
“It’s my hope that [the] collective bargaining [raises] will be funded,” Rosenberg said Wednesday morning.
But hours later, UMass backed away from the pact, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo rattled Rosenberg’s attempted détente when he questioned whether there would be money to dole out in the coming months. The state faces the possibility of lower-than-projected revenue and mid-year budget cuts.
“I want to be supportive, but it’s a different time frame, it’s not as easy as that,” DeLeo said.
In the agreement, Rosenberg pledged to push for the $10.9 million in an upcoming spending bill, and if he was successful, UMass would set aside $5 million of it for scholarships for needy students.
As the lightning-speed posturing continued, UMass issued a statement that cast doubt that any deal had been struck, calling Rosenberg’s promise to push for the money “positive but independent steps.”
UMass spokesman Robert Connolly said Meehan intends to privately raise $5 million for scholarships, regardless of whether the Legislature allocates the $10.9 million.
The state money would have paid for 12 months of raises that went unfunded last year as Beacon Hill officials disagreed about whether the university should receive a separate pot of money to pay employees, which is customary, or whether the money should come from the overall UMass budget. UMass has a budget of $3 billion, and it received a 4 percent increase this year in state support, which is now $531 million.
Meanwhile, UMass has said that because it did not get the money, and even if it does in the future, it will have to make $10.9 million in mid-year cuts to the five-campus system, including $5 million on the Amherst campus, which is in Rosenberg’s district.
Rosenberg told the Globe this week that the Senate did not allocate the money because UMass refused to consider his request to lower student fees, which rose this year for the first time in three years. But on Wednesday, the Senate president appeared to soften his hard line on that point, as well.
“Everybody works to hold charges down . . . but there are inevitable increases from time to time, and we’re never going to be in a place where you’re going to be able to freeze them for 20 years,” Rosenberg said.
After UMass cast doubt on the agreement with Rosenberg, the political maneuvering continued. Rosenberg’s office produced a memo Meehan sent to Rosenberg on Tuesday after a private dinner between the two the night before, in which Meehan appears to agree to a deal.
“Dear President Rosenberg,” said the memo. “Per our recent conversation, in the event that the University of Massachusetts receives $10.9 million dollars from the Commonwealth to pay the collective bargaining obligations . . . the university will provide an additional $5 million in need-based financial aid. Sincerely, MTM.”
But Meehan’s office on Wednesday evening countered that the deal was contingent upon DeLeo’s approval.
“The speaker did not sign off on it, as far as I know. He told me he didn’t,” Meehan said in a phone interview.
Yet again, stories did not align. Rosenberg’s office said it had, in fact, secured approval from DeLeo’s office to announce the agreement, citing an e-mail from the speaker’s spokesmanm, Seth Gitell, about a press release that was to go out on Wednesday about the deal. In the confusion after Rosenberg’s announcement, that release never saw the light of day.
Gitell said Thursday that the email was not an approval. He furnished a text message, sent after Rosenberg’s morning announcement, in which he told Rosenberg’s office that DeLeo would not participate in the press release, which he said meant the speaker did not support the deal.
DeLeo told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he had tried to call Meehan and Rosenberg Tuesday night but could not reach them. He said he first learned of a possible agreement in a State House News Service story Wednesday morning. DeLeo said last week’s discussion about the extra funding was part of a budget linked to the previous fiscal year, when the state knew how much extra money was available. “Now, as we have gone into a new fiscal year, it’s questionable,” he said.
Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: This version of the story adds a comment from Seth Gitell, spokesman for House Speaker House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.