On Beacon Hill: July tax receipts buoy state budget outlook [plus videos]

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From State House News Service

ON THE AGENDA

  • July tax collections halt revenue slide
  • Videos: Pros and cons of marijuana legalization
  • Fentanyl-fueled overdose death spike on Baker’s radar
  • … easier medication access for at-risk patients, not so much
  • Right-wing Mass. Fiscal Alliance ruled not a PAC
Massachusetts State House

Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House


TOP OF THE HILL

State tax collections in July halt months-long revenue slog

Despite dire warnings from the Baker administration about overly optimistic tax collection estimates used to build this year’s $39.1 billion state budget, the first month of the new fiscal year ended in the black, with receipts beating benchmarks by $7 million, according to revenue officials.

The Mass. Department of Revenue announced Aug. 3 the state collected more than $1.7 billion in July, or 2.1 percent more than in the same month last year. Income, corporate and business taxes all beat projections for the month, while sales and use taxes and withholding collections missed their mark.

“We are close to benchmark for the first month of fiscal year 2017,” Revenue Commissioner Michael Heffernan said in a statement. “July saw modest growth in income tax revenues and lower-than-expected growth in overall sales tax revenues. We will watch revenues closely to identify potential trends in our collections.”

Tax collections over the last half of fiscal 2016 repeatedly fell shy of benchmarks — the last time revenues beat the monthly benchmark was in March — and the July haul starts state government off on a good foot on the revenue front. On the spending side, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated a $240 million gap in the new budget, largely due to spending-veto overrides in late July.

Total tax collections in fiscal 2016 of $25.267 billion were up by $550 million, or 2.2 percent, from fiscal 2015, and $484 million below the budget benchmark.

Gov. Charlie Baker's state budget vetoes put him at odds with legislative leaders.

State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

The administration in June filed an updated financial disclosure for investors warning that expected tax revenues for fiscal 2017 were likely to run $450 million to $750 million below the estimates that Gov. Charlie Baker and House and Senate budget writers arrived at in January. In July, income tax collections of $949 million grew by 3.7 percent year over year, beating benchmarks by $20 million. Corporate and business taxes were up 4.3 percent over last year and $4 million ahead of estimates.

The $544 million in sales and use tax collections were down $5 million, or less than 1 percent, from last July and $18 million below benchmark, which revenue officials attributed to a “substantial decrease” in motor vehicle sales.

— Matt Murphy


VIDEOS OF THE WEEK

Pros and Cons on marijuana legalization Ballot Question #4

 

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu, State Rep. David M. Rogers (D-Cambridge) and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse (above) are for a Yes vote, while Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins is opposed (below)


SAY WHAT?

“This deadly epidemic is still devastating too many Massachusetts families, and treatment, education and prevention will remain a top priority for our administration.”

Gov. Charlie Baker

Fentanyl fuels continued rise in opioid overdose deaths into 2016

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) recently reported 488 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdose deaths since January, a total that could grow when accounting for active cases. The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl was confirmed in 66 percent of those cases, up from 57 percent in 2015.

Health officials said current unintentional overdose deaths are higher than the first six months of 2015. At 1,531, confirmed opioid overdose deaths during 2015 in Massachusetts were up 18 percent over 2014. Opioid deaths in 2014 were up 41 percent over 2013, according to DPH.

“Collecting statewide data on fentanyl-related deaths will play a critical role as the Commonwealth works to bend the trends and combat the opioid crisis in our communities,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “While we have completed several reforms and passed landmark legislation, this deadly epidemic is still devastating too many Massachusetts families, and treatment, education and prevention will remain a top priority for our administration.”

While deaths are still on the rise, data culled from the state Prescription Monitoring program shows the number of prescriptions for opioids and the number of patients receiving those prescriptions are at their lowest level since the first quarter of 2015.

The DPH report also found that emergency medical personnel administered the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone — more commonly known as Narcan — 1.4 times per incident on average. Officials say that’s evidence that more of the drug is now needed to reverse overdoses.

— Matt Murphy


IN THE NEWS

Amid legislative posturing, help for mental health and substance abuse patients is left by the wayside

Leading up to end of formal legislative sessions last weekend, House and Senate lawmakers seemed determined to ease patient access to mental health and substance abuse medications this summer by allowing registered pharmacists to administer the drugs under the direction of a doctor.

The legislation, however, died at midnight on July 31 by gubernatorial veto, and days later nobody involved in the debate was available or could explain why.

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

Sam Doran (SHNS / file photo)

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

The Legislature included in its budget a section allowing registered pharmacists to administer mental health and substance abuse medications. Pharmacists say the measure would have improved access by making it more convenient for patients to keep appointments for weekly or monthly injections at their local pharmacy.

Gov. Charlie Baker supported the concept, but returned the section with an amendment that would have first required the Department of Public Health, in consultation with the Board of Registration in Pharmacy and the Department of Mental Health, to develop regulations.

“I support the intent of this section to expand access to such medications in appropriate circumstances,” Baker wrote to lawmakers. “However, many mental health and substance abuse medications have the potential to cause serious consequences, including adverse medical reactions and fatal overdoses. Such medications should be administered by clinically trained staff, together with close supervision and counseling.”

Baker filed his amendment on July 11, and three days later the House and Senate rejected it on a 35-124 vote in the House and a voice vote in the Senate. The Legislature reenacted its original bill on July 18. Baker waited the full 10 days afforded to him for review before vetoing the bill (H 4489) on the Friday before the last two marathon formal sessions of the year on July 30 and 31.

“(Pharmacists) do it in about half of the states for this type of medication. This is a patient population where adherence is difficult and any convenience that you can provide helps. Pharmacies are pretty good at getting people to come to appointments,” said David Johnson, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association.

Johnson said the association considered Baker’s amendment “unnecessary” and worried it could delay the improved access for at least one to two years while pharmacists waited for regulations, but the group did not take a position for or against the amendment.

“We think the Board of Pharmacy is capable of producing a policy or a guidance, but we didn’t fight it either,” he said of the governor’s counter proposal.

Asked why the Legislature didn’t override the veto, Johnson said, “I honestly don’t know. It’s very confusing because, why would you let it lapse when you took the step to reject the amendment calling for regulations? It seemed they were poised to override the veto at this point and I have no idea why they didn’t take that step.”

The House waited until Thursday, Aug. 4, to introduce Baker’s veto message, announcing it during a lightly attended informal session and putting it on the House calendar. But since the Legislature will only meet in informal sessions over the next five months and therefore cannot override any gubernatorial vetoes, the proposal appears dead until it can be refiled for the 2017-2018 session.

Neither Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, nor Rep. Nick Collins, D-Boston, who sponsored similar legislation this session, were available Thursday to discuss what happened to the bill, and a spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Brian S. Dempsey, D-Haverhill, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The administration, according to a senior official, continued to advocate its position throughout the weekend, which could have influenced a changing of minds among legislative leaders.

Baker, in his veto letter, said that without modifications the bill “unnecessarily compromises the health and safety of persons who are prescribed psychotropic medications for the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders” by allowing pharmacists to administer medications “without proper education and training and outside the context of the therapeutic prescriber-patient relationship.”

“The best practice for treating mental health and substance use disorders involves a combination of medication, clinical treatment, psychosocial interventions, laboratory assessments and support. Medications used in the treatment of mental health problems and substance use disorders carry a risk of serious adverse medical reactions, including fatal overdose. Accordingly, these medications should only be administered by clinicians trained to observe and monitor the patient and in the context of a true clinician-patient relationship that also includes treatment and engagement efforts,” Baker wrote.

He added, “While pharmacists are trained in administration of some medications used to prevent certain illnesses, such as vaccines, pharmacists do not receive professional education or training in the administration of the broad array of powerful medications used to treat substance use disorder or mental illness.”

— Matt Murphy


Campaign finance regulators rule Mass. Fiscal Alliance not a PAC, but call for donor disclosure

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance should disclose the identity of an individual who donated $500 ahead of special elections in February, but the conservative nonprofit is not a political action committee, state regulators announced Wednesday, Aug. 3.

Feared by Democrats, who over the weekend passed more stringent requirements for political mailers ahead of this fall’s elections, Mass. Fiscal uses its coffers to target Democrats in mailers that reference roll-call votes. As a nonprofit, the organization led by Republicans Rick Green, Paul Craney and Jim Rappaport, among others, is not subject to the open-books requirements of full political action committees, known as PACs.

According to a determination of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Mass. Fiscal should disclose the identity of a donor who gave $500 after a February fundraising email. OCPF also “strongly suggests” Mass. Fiscal should continue to request reviews of all of its fundraising by the state’s campaign finance regulator.

The decision, known as a public resolution letter, did not include any fines or referrals to enforcement agencies. The campaign finance office was clear on whether Mass. Fiscal is a political committee, writing in response to its own question, “No.”

The six-page letter represented the agency’s response to a complaint that Mass Fiscal solicited funds to support a candidate without registering as a political committee.

At issue was an email sent out to about 2,500 people before March 1 special legislative elections in which Democrats held or picked up three seats in Fitchburg, Peabody and Brockton.

“Just one week remains until the special elections in Fitchburg and Peabody. I’m not going to mince words with you: to execute Mass. Fiscal’s mission, I must raise $23,000 in seven days. Can you help? Every bit counts. Your contribution TODAY … can make the difference,” the group’s finance director, Jordanne Anderson, wrote. “The plan is an all-out blitz. Your help is important to our success, and the sooner you can send your donation, the greater our chances are.”

The appeal, publicized at the time by the Massachusetts Democratic Party for its own fundraising efforts, netted $700, including one donation of $500, which the campaign finance office said is subject to the disclosure law for donations intended for electioneering communications.

Craney, the group’s executive director, disagrees, saying the donor offered an affidavit affirming the donation was not intended specifically for electioneering communication. Craney believes the group did nothing wrong and Mass. Fiscal does not intend to make the donor public.

“We protect the generous support from our loyal members,” Craney told the News Service, saying Mass. Fiscal has “a target on our backs.”

Jay Cincotti, the executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, argued the campaign finance office decision exposes Mass. Fiscal’s agenda.

“They’re really trying to play fast and loose with these rules and they got caught this time,” Cincotti said. “Their interest is in supporting Governor [Charlie] Baker’s conservative agenda.”

In the Fitchburg election for state representative, Democrat Stephan Hay squeaked out a 125-vote victory over Republican Dean Tran. Mass. Fiscal spent at least $15,000 associated with the race, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Mass. Fiscal spent $2,800 on a handbill comparing the two candidates, according to the campaign finance office, which said Mass. Fiscal also paid to “print get-out-the-vote door hangers, which were distributed door-to-door by paid canvassers,” who were told to promote “fiscal responsibility” but no particular candidate to voters.

Mass. Fiscal paid a total of about $13,000 for the door-hangers and canvassers, according to the decision, which said those were not technically electioneering communications because they did not reference a candidate.

Cincotti said he has “no idea” who is bankrolling Mass. Fiscal’s activities.

“They have no desire to let anybody know where their funding comes from,” Cincotti said.

— Andy Metzger

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