David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
Six months after the Legislature mandated the spending, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration on Tuesday said it was releasing $100 million, much of it for human services programs.
His refusal to release the money until now had created anxiety among advocates for some of the state’s neediest populations, from gravely ill children to families facing sudden homelessness to the frail elderly.
His move to freeze funding grants had also created friction with Beacon Hill lawmakers and prompted warnings from legal specialists who say he was violating the state Constitution by usurping the Legislature’s authority to set government funding priorities.
The governor was “overstepping his authority here,’’ said Senate Ways and Means chairwoman Karen Spilka.” She said he was “hurting our most vulnerable people in the state.”
But on Tuesday Baker’s budget aides said December tax revenue collections were strong enough that he now felt comfortable spending the money.
“I’ve had numerous discussions with the governor about releasing these vital funds. I’m pleased that the administration responded,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Tuesday.
Advocates and senior legislative budget analysts say the total amount of money withheld is closer to $150 million. It’s not clear how quickly the funds will be disbursed, but better than expected December revenues may quicken the release of the money.
Since he signed the new state budget in July, Baker had made no secret of his fiscal austerity plan, telling reporters in October he would not release so-called earmarks — money designated by legislators for specific purposes — until he was confident tax revenues were meeting projections to balance the $40 billion state spending plan.
But legislators and advocates for many of the programs whose money had been held up noted that tax revenues through November were running 2.1 percent above estimates.
Baker, however, had faulted lawmakers for overriding $209 million of his budget vetoes. His aides had also pointed to increasing costs for MassHealth (the state’s version of Medicaid), and to the potential need to spend $200 million more to deal later in the year with other underfunded accounts.
The governor’s aides told The Boston Globe last week that a report this week on the state’s December tax collections would likely dictate the future of some of the spending controls. On Tuesday they said that preliminary December numbers were sufficiently strong to release the money.
Baker’s spokesman Brendan Moss did not reply directly to questions about the governor’s legal standing to restrict the release of legislatively mandated funds. But a spokeswoman for the administration’s budget office insisted that Baker’s actions were consistent with his responsibilities to make sure the budget remains balanced.
“The governor is obligated by statute and empowered by the Constitution to manage the Commonwealth’s budget to year-end balance and is committed to protecting taxpayer dollars throughout this process,” said Sarah Finlaw, communications director for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance.
Several legal experts, however, said Baker’s funding freeze, which was in place through half the fiscal year, directly conflicted with his constitutional obligations. They said a 1978 Supreme Judicial Court ruling clearly restricts governors from making unilateral budget cuts or withholding appropriations unless they can demonstrate that revenues projected to support the spending are falling behind expectations.
That SJC opinion says a governor “is obliged to execute the law as it has emerged from the legislative process.”
“He is not free to circumvent that process by withholding funds or otherwise failing to execute the law on the basis of his views regarding social utility or wisdom of the law,’’ the justices wrote. They did leave some discretion, saying a governor is “not obliged to spend the money foolishly or needlessly.”
Peter Enrich, a Northeastern University law professor and expert in public finance who served as general counsel to the budget offices in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said that opinion has set the legal standard for the past four decades.
“A governor is responsible for upholding the Legislature’s action in an efficient and well-managed way,’’ he said. “It is the Legislature’s role to determine what policies should be pursued and to provide the resources to pursue them. The governor does not have the authority to decide which programs are worthy and which are not.”
Lou Rizoli, who served as the House counsel for 25 years and taught courses at Suffolk University Law School for 15 years dealing with the separation of powers, said the legal argument cited by the 1978 decision goes back to the intent of the 18th-century authors of the state Constitution. “It is not what the framers of the Constitution contemplated when they wrote it,’’ Rizoli, a lawyer at the Boston law firm Locke Lord, said of Baker’s characterization of his budgetary authority. “Like it or not, it is the Legislature that determines the social objective of the programs, not the governor.’’
The governor can legally restrict the release of funds through a specific statute that can be invoked only when revenues fall behind expectations. Baker used those powers in the last fiscal year to make budget cuts when revenues were not meeting benchmarks.
Baker’s cautious view of the state’s current financial position echoes the warning of a leading fiscal watchdog, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. In December the group predicted stalled tax growth, potentially significant federal funding cuts, and depleted reserves.
Meanwhile, Baker’s fiscal constraints had raised alarms among human services advocates and administrators of a host of state-funded programs.
And he raised the ire of lawmakers because much of the money he was withholding is spending he had vetoed but they had overridden by the necessary two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.
Advocates for the homeless, for instance, watched the House and Senate in September override Baker’s veto of $675,000 the lawmakers wanted to spend to help homeless youth and young adults. Baker, who had initially proposed $2 million for the program last January, argued the $675,000 was too small to be effective. Baker aides said the administration has released some earmarks to support local homeless shelters because of the recent frigid weather.
Boston Children’s Hospital, meanwhile, made a plea in late November to the governor to release $818,000 in new funds the Legislature had allotted for in-home services to “medically fragile children.” The state’s Pediatric Palliative Care Network provides a range of support, including nursing; pain management; music, art, and massage therapy; and respite care for the parents of gravely ill children. “There is a wait list of 164 chronically and terminally ill children waiting for these essential services,” two of the hospital’s government relations staff wrote to Baker on Nov. 29. “Seven children on this list have died this year, never receiving these essential services.’’
On Tuesday, the pediatric palliative care program got word that its promised funding would be released this week.
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