Boosts, curbs in Baker’s $39.6 billion budget
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Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday unveiled a $39.6 billion budget proposal that would add 281 workers to the state's child protection agency, add recovery beds for opioid addicts, and make good on a campaign pledge to change the state's welfare system.
The Republican governor also pledged to slow the rise of state health care spending on the poor as part of an effort to bridge what administration officials have pegged as a $635-million budget gap.
"Getting state spending under control," Baker said at a news conference flanked by top officials, "is essential to the state's economic health going forward."
The governor's proposal drew a range of reactions from advocates, activists, and lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which will have the final say over state spending.
Attorney General Maura Healey, perhaps the highest-profile Democrat in Massachusetts, thanked Baker on Twitter for proposing new money for law enforcement to combat drug trafficking and curb the supply of illegal opioids.
The state Democratic Party, though, panned the budget as a "status quo" document, lacking vision.
Perhaps the strongest criticism came from advocates for the poor, who savaged Baker's attempt to cut welfare payments for the disabled.
"To do something that is going to hit families that are headed by a severely disabled parent, and pauperize them even further, would put children at dramatically increased risk of homelessness, hunger, and illness," said Deborah Harris, senior staff attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
But Jeff McCue, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, said the state would take the estimated $29 million in savings and pour it into job training, transportation to and from work, and child care.
"It's a pretty strong menu of true stabilization efforts for the working poor," he said, adding that the services would promote self-sufficiency.
Harris said the job supports are worthy programs, but the disabled people losing cash assistance would have little use for them because they cannot work.
But many advocates praised Baker's push to spend more on the beleaguered Department of Children and Families, which has come under fire for the injury or death of several children under its supervision in recent years.
"With the release of this budget, Governor Baker has yet again shown his steadfast commitment to protecting the children of the Commonwealth," said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts, in a written statement.
The governor's budget, for the fiscal year that begins in July, includes $12 million for 281 new hires at DCF, including scores of social workers, 22 supervisors, and five regional substance abuse coordinators, among others.
The administration has been moving, separately, to replace a patchwork of department policies with what it describes as a clear, standardized playbook. The new rules, for instance, require criminal background checks in all cases of parents accused of abuse and neglect.
One of the biggest drivers of state spending is MassHealth, the state's health program for the poor and disabled. The Baker administration has made curbing costs there a central part of its effort to keep the budget in balance.
Officials have spent months verifying the eligibility of MassHealth recipients and culling recipients who do not qualify for the program.
The budget plan released Wednesday aims to continue that effort and move more people into cost-saving managed care plans, among other efforts. All told, the administration hopes to save almost $300 million.
Baker's plan includes no new taxes or fees, and Citizens for Limited Taxation called the proposal "sweet music to the ears of the taxpayers" in a news release.
But Beacon Hill watchdogs said some of the fiscal maneuvers in the spending plan were cause for concern, including Baker's plan to help plug the budget hole with $150 million meant for the state's emergency rainy day fund. That is what's called one-time money — cash that can't be easily replicated from year to year.
The Baker administration has vowed to reduce the state's reliance on such money and trumpeted that Wednesday's budget proposal had made important strides in that direction.
Baker's fiscal restraint has contributed to soaring public approval ratings. But he faces increasingly vocal opposition from liberal activists and lawmakers.
On Wednesday, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's education committee, said the governor had failed to live up to a campaign promise that he would increase K-12 spending at the same rate as the annual growth in state revenue.
"I will say unabashedly: I'm very disappointed," she said.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the governor, responded that "the administration is pleased to have increased the investment made in our public schools year after year now, despite billions in inherited budget deficits."
Baker also promised during his 2014 run to increase local aid to cities and towns, a pledge he keeps with this budget. It would funnel $42 million in new money to municipalities, to be used for services like police and trash pickup.
Another Baker campaign refrain was overhauling welfare.
The change he proposed Wednesday had been pitched before. In 2009, in the throes of the Great Recession, Governor Deval Patrick put forward a similar cut. But the Democrat ran into opposition from lawmakers and advocates.
Under current law, the state does not count federal disability benefits as part of a family's income in determining eligibility for its Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which provides cash assistance to families with children and to women in the final months of their pregnancies.
The state does count veterans benefits and other public payments, though. And officials said including disability payments in the calculus is a matter of fairness.
The administration is hoping its push to change the rules will fare better than Patrick's because it has proposed redirecting savings to supports for the poor, rather than simply using them to fill a budget hole.