House budget holds the line, but for how long?
THE STATE BUDGET — now topping $42 billion — is more than just a collection of really big numbers. It’s a roadmap for how the state will treat its most vulnerable, meet its most important obligations, like educating its young people, and set the table for future economic growth.
By that standard the House Ways and Means budget, the first put forward by its new chairman Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, and up for debate this week, is a solid, workmanlike effort. Not without its flaws surely, but on balance one that sets the right spending priorities.
Now, of course, there are those lawmakers for whom $42.7 billion will simply never be enough — especially if it doesn’t fund the odd little local projects so loved on Beacon Hill. The more than 1,370 proposed budget amendments already filed are proof that the quest for pork will never die.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation noted that the House budget projects $95.3 million more in revenue than it proposes in spending, leading them to speculate that Michlewitz has left the House a little wiggle room for floor amendments — just in case.
But the House document also left out some potential revenue sources proposed in the budget put forth earlier by Governor Charlie Baker.
Some omissions, like the $35 million Baker projected from legalizing sports betting — something that will be debated in separate legislation — make sense in a don’t-count-your-chickens-until-they’re-hatched kind of way. But others, like leaving $306 million on the table from Baker’s proposed acceleration of sales tax collections simply make no sense at all. Also scrapped by the House budget are Baker’s proposal to tax gross opioid receipts ($14 million) and extend the tobacco excise tax to e-cigarettes and vaping products ($6 million) — the latter as much a health measure as a revenue-raising one.
Yes, that’s right: In the through-the-looking-glass world of Massachusetts politics, it’s a Republican governor trying to raise taxes and a Democratic Legislature trying to stop him.
On the spending side, the House budget would invest $18 million more in Chapter 70 education funding than the governor’s version (for a total of $218 million more than last year) and increase minimum aid to school districts by $30 per pupil ($10 more than Baker). The new money would buttress special education and instruction for low-income students and those learning English.
And the House provides an additional $23 million ($7 million more than the governor) in reimbursements to regular public school districts for the students they lose to charter schools, increasing the reimbursement during those first few years. Yes, it amounts to buying off charter school opponents. But if it helps quiet the anti-charter animus, it might be money well spent.
The budget also laudably expands support for higher education, for the homeless, and for substance abuse treatment, while also socking away another $260 million in the state’s rainy day fund.
But as the Taxpayers Foundation points out, there are also some trip wires out there — items perpetually underfunded. When Administration and Finance Secretary Mike Heffernan announced the governor was putting in $100 million for snow and ice removal, his staff cheered — because, of course, that account is always underfunded. In keeping with that dysfunctional tradition, the House cut it back to $50 million.
And there are the downright quirky — like a legislative commission to study the restaurant industry and $2 million to fund its recommendations after. Seriously?
As floor debate begins there will be efforts by some lawmakers to amend the budget to appease local constituents and boost favorite causes — $1.5 million for design work on the Worcester Art Museum, for instance, or $10,000 to support Scituate Community Christmas, or $100,000 for the King Philip Regional animal shelter.
This is, in the end, a balancing act — aid for animal shelters, or additional funds to hold the line on tuition for UMass students? Improving an art museum, or increasing access to mental health services for children and for the elderly? We know where our priorities would be.
Producing a budget is only half the job for the new House Ways and Means chairman. Holding the line on it in the week ahead is the tough part.