July 9, 2017

On Beacon Hill: The $40 billion buzzkill

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

CRUNCH TIME: Seven days into the new fiscal year, an overdue budget bill was filed Friday morning and enacted in both branches within eight hours. Asked about the short timeline for members to review the bill, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said, "I give the members sort of a lot more credit that they're able to look quickly and figure out if local aid and Chapter 70 are going up or down....This is a multi-month, several month process. They're very well attuned to what levels of spending there are. I know they are, because they're all sending letters on increased funding. ... I'm confident they'll be comfortable."

Recap and analysis of the week in local, state and federal government
from State House News Service

BOSTON — Consider Beacon Hill’s mellow harshed.

To the extent that the Fourth of July break was supposed to be a timeout for House and Senate lawmakers deadlocked over an annual state budget bill and legislation regulating legal marijuana, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The smoke had no sooner cleared from the fireworks over the Charles River than lawmakers returned to work midweek to find that tensions simmering behind the two major issues before the Legislature were ready to bubble over.

Deadlines had already been blown. Speculation about sticking points was swirling. And lawmakers were being asked to defend why Massachusetts, a state prideful of bipartisanship, was one of just a handful nationwide without a fiscal 2018 budget in place.

A $40.2 billion budget deal to fund the government for the next eleven-plus months would eventually emerge from the fracas and be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker for his review, but not before a few punches were thrown.

The post-Fourth of July pyrotechnics got started early Wednesday evening when, after the branches broke for the day without agreement on marijuana or a budget, sources close to the negotiations told State House News Service that talks over both issues had become intertwined.

The mere suggestion that House and Senate leaders might be using items in one bill as leverage for a deal on the other drew swift and forceful denials from both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

But at times it became unclear whether the top Democrats were denying that attempts at cross-topic horse-trading had taken place, or simply their own involvement.

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo

Rosenberg chalked up the talk of linkage between the two conference committee negotiations to “mischief makers” looking to spoil the stew, but DeLeo took it one step further. Despite his disavowal that the House would ever stoop to such politics, he suspended the House’s participation in talks over marijuana regulation to remove “distractions” and focus on getting an already-late budget to Gov. Baker’s desk.

That move sparked an array of increasingly agitated responses from his Senate counterpart. Rosenberg early Thursday, with a smile on his face, proclaimed himself “puzzled” by the maneuvering before suggesting the Senate can “walk and chew gum at the same time” and inviting the House to do the same.

But when it became clear that a budget deal was imminent and that, just maybe, DeLeo’s posturing achieved its intended result, the leader from Amherst, this time a bit more wide-eyed, declared it “absurd” that the pot-talk suspension had anything to do with the budget compromise or that negotiations might have been linked prior.

“Whoever made up those rumors and spread them had an intention, a nefarious intention. There were never any discussions linking the two. It was b.s.,” he told reporters. It was a rather unusual outburst for the typically good-natured leader whose hallmark has been decorum.

The talk of linkage between pot and the budget clearly struck a nerve throughout the building.

But in some ways legislative leaders played a role in inviting those types of leaks and speculation about motives and gamesmanship as they insist on a level of secrecy that leaves even the governor guessing about what goes on behind closed doors, where the important decisions about the major bills are made.

Seven hours and 56 minutes after House and Senate leaders filed their compromise budget bill with the House clerk, the voting was done and the fiscal 2018 budget — a slimmed-down version of what lawmakers passed this spring — was on its way to Baker.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey tried to put a shine on the budget, which lowered tax projections for next year by $733 million and forced cutbacks throughout. He told House members before they voted that most programs and agencies would still see an increase, albeit one smaller than once envisioned.

Meanwhile, down in the Senate’s temporary meeting quarters Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka spoke about “pain,” and Rosenberg would call it the “harshest state budget since the last recession.”

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Sales tax holiday, marijuana regulations back on front burner
  • McGovern on Green Street, Markey on North Korea, Healey on DeVos
  • Administration says healthcare reforms will continue to be top priority
  • Video: Budget ‘not without pain,’ Spilka says
  • Governor eyes trust funds to fill fiscal 2017 revenue gap


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