Mass. Legislature could strengthen Charlie Baker’s hand with budget delay
In New Jersey, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the party’s freshman governor wrangled over tax increases until mere hours before a fiscal impasse would trigger a government shutdown.
Lawmakers passed the budget on time.
In South Carolina, abortion foes railed against money Planned Parenthood could receive, threatening to delay the spending plan.
Lawmakers still sent it to the governor, before the deadline.
In Pennsylvania, after three straight years of the budget arriving late — and the Democratic governor not signing it — Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg achieved something extraordinary.
They finished the budget early — and the governor actually put his name on it.
Then there is Massachusetts, the last state in the country without a budget for the current fiscal year and the only one whose Legislature didn’t send the governor its spending plan on time.
The tardiness of Democratic lawmakers hasn’t shut government down because Governor Charlie Baker signed a temporary budget that will fund the government through the end of the month. But the logjam — which representatives privately blame on the Senate, and senators privately blame on the House — could strengthen the hand of Baker, a Republican in the midst of a reelection campaign.
If he runs out the clock, it would allow him to veto certain policy items in the budget without giving the Democratic-controlled Legislature time to override them before the end of the formal legislative session on July 31.
Then there is this awkwardness: Lawmakers failing to do their job in a timely fashion isn’t a good look in the same two-year session they raised their own pay.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘embarrassed,’ but I might use the word ‘disappointed,’ ” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo told reporters when asked about Massachusetts’ national budget ignominy Wednesday, 10 days after the state’s fiscal year began. He noted this year’s budget was later than any other in his tenure as Speaker, a position he took in January 2009.
Lawmakers’ tardiness is notable, especially in these good fiscal times. State coffers in Massachusetts and beyond are enjoying an unexpected windfall in revenue that experts attribute in part to the federal tax overhaul President Trump signed into law in December.
The extra cash helps avoid painful, and often time-consuming, debates over cuts and fiscal maneuvering, said Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal studies at the National Association of State Budget Officers, which tracks legislative spending nationwide.
That’s especially true in years when April tax revenues roll in below expectations, causing bean counters to scramble to realign priorities. But that didn’t happen in many states, and it has showed.
Last year, 11 states finished their budgets late, according to the NASBO. This year, there have been just two tardy states — including South Carolina, where lawmakers passed their budget before July 1, but the governor signed it a few days later.
That leaves one remaining outlier: Massachusetts.
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate have both passed their own versions of a $41 billion state budget. But, so far, they haven’t been able to reconcile the two spending plans despite relatively narrow differences in spending levels.
Besides setting appropriations for specific areas — the state’s Medicaid program, the State Police, housing for homeless families, and state aid to local schools, for example — each budget also includes policy sections that would change state law.
According to the business-backed watchdog Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House-passed budget has 109 non-spending sections, while the Senate has 185.
“As has been the case in recent years, the Senate budget includes significantly more policy provisions that the House,” the foundation said in a recent report. “This mismatch in the number of sections can make it difficult to resolve policy differences in a way that is satisfactory for both branches.”
DeLeo has floated the idea of separating policy sections from specific appropriations as a way to speed the process. But the Senate’s budget chief, Senator Karen E. Spilka, who has claimed sufficient votes to be the chamber’s next president, was cool to that idea. She called such a separation “unprecedented and unnecessary.”
The ongoing House-Senate deliberations over the budget have the presumably unintended effect of giving Baker power he otherwise would not have.
The governor can veto specific spending and policy sections in the budget. Most years, the Democratic super-majority in both chambers can — and does — override any vetoes lawmakers think are amiss, ensuring the spending or policy change becomes law.
But this year, the Legislature’s delay undercuts its power because the formal legislative session ends July 31, and a formal roll call vote is required to override a gubernatorial veto.
So, if the Legislature does not send a budget to Baker by the end of next week, he could, in theory, veto any spending or policy he doesn’t like at the last moment of the 10-day window, and Democratic lawmakers would have no recourse to override it.
There’s another wonky twist. The state Constitution also gives the governor the power to send back a policy part of the budget with an amendment, changing the language. The Legislature can then accept the change or restore their preferred language before sending it back to the executive chamber.
But at that point, the 10-day clock starts again, which means Baker will likely be able to veto a policy after the formal session ends July 31, leaving the Legislature without a say.
In a telephone interview, Spilka left open the prospect of legislators coming back for roll call votes after the formal session had ended, which would be historically unusual and procedurally very difficult.
“The Senate is here to get work done and we’ll work as long and as hard as we need . . . to get the job done,” she said.
When a reporter pointed out the formal session ends July 31, she replied, “usually, yes.”
Later Wednesday, the House’s budget chief, Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, said in response: “Instead of talking about coming back in August, we should be talking about getting the budget done now. That’s what the House has been doing and will continue to do.”