May 28, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Senate drops $40.4B spending plan, with a bang

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Sen. Walter Timilty of Milton stepped out onto the Senate balcony to use his cellphone during the second of three full days of budget debate. It was the first Senate budget week for Timilty -- who previously served several terms in the House -- and his fellow freshmen Julian Cyr of Truro and Adam Hinds of Pittsfield.

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

BOSTON — The walls crumbling literally and figuratively around them, senators did their best to pretend everything was purple ties and punch last week as they sped through their annual budget debate and marched off into Memorial Day weekend.

The exercise dominated activity on Beacon Hill, while off campus Joe Biden was bopping about town, Hillary Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg were advising the newest college graduates, and the world was coming to grips with the latest terror attack in England.

The final vote on the $40.4 billion budget bill may have come just in the nick of time, following a loud bang and falling debris from the ceiling — like a bad omen for things to come.

“It sounds like we need to get out of here,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said, perhaps half joking, before calling for the vote. The Senate chamber will soon, supposedly, undergo structural renovations.

The finalizing of the Senate budget, however, sets the stage for a month, and maybe more, of negotiations with the House over not just spending, but projections for economic and revenue growth in the coming year that have been called into questions by months of troubling signs.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday pointed to this week’s release of May revenue collections as a clarifying moment when leaders will have a better idea of how fiscal 2017 will end up, and what it could foretell for fiscal 2018.

State House News Service file

Senate President Stan Rosenberg

“It’s going to be a rough budget conference,” Rosenberg said following passage of the Senate budget, which only added to the choices that will have to be made as the body loaded the bill with policy proposals, tax adjustments and spending that don’t jibe with the House’s version.

The lack of disposable state income may have made some choices easier this year, but senators found enough money for earmarks — $30 million in fact — to ensure that things like the new Dr. Seuss museum in Springfield and a steampunk festival in Waltham got a piece of the pie.

Those are also likely to be among the first items on the chopping block, if not in conference then by Gov. Baker’s veto pen. The Senate also voted to eliminate parole fees, increase taxes on flavored cigars, and scale back the film tax credit, which House defender and Majority Leader Ron Mariano called an “attack” on job creation policy.

The Senate even found time for a public reading of “Casey at the Bat.”

Over the course of the three days (one longer than it took the House) and consideration of 1,031 amendments, the Senate took just 35 roll call votes, all but one of which was unanimous.

“First time in a long time, when the majority party and the minority party are hard to distinguish,” lamented Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance Executive Director Paul Craney.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

State House News Service / file

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito

  • Legislature has some work to do
  • Moore on body cams, Polito on Memorial Day, Markey on vets
  • Senate pivots to policy in face of spending restraints
  • Video: Health advocates praise Baker for Trumpcare stance
  • Warren releases report on importance of NIH funding in Mass.
  • Key departure prompts MBTA management overhaul

LOOKING AHEAD

What have you done for me lately?

Outside of the budget, legislative leaders have little to show for policy achievements five months into the new session. Lawmakers fast-tracked a bill raising their own pay early in the session but have not dug in on much else.

In the near term, lawmakers have targeted June for the release of a proposal overhauling the ballot law legalizing marijuana possession and use, and authorizing retail pot shops. A report on May tax collections, due out this week, will influence consideration of a $45 million supplemental spending bill that cleared the House last week and is pending before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

House leaders have only informal sessions scheduled so it’s unlikely they will revisit anytime soon a bill preventing state resources from being used to execute agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train state and local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. The bill was drafted to counter President Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigration but House Democrats pulled it back last week, citing questions about it from legislators.

A LITTLE BIRDIE

Moore on budget amendment pushing for body camera panel

Polito on Memorial Day

Markey joins McGovern in effort to honor ‘atomic’ veterans

NOTED

Senate pivots to policy, clouds already murky budget picture, advocacy group claims

With most bills still in committee five months into the new session, the Senate last week loaded up its annual budget bill with policy proposals, creating major areas of disagreement with the House as the budget heads into conference.

A Senate budget analysis released Friday by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates total line item spending in the bill at $40.84 billion, compared to $40.83 billion in the House budget and $40.91 billion in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget, which was filed in January. Those bottom lines compared to $39.62 billion this fiscal year, MTF said.

According to MTF, the Senate added 150 policy sections to its budget through floor amendments, adding to 111 policy sections already in the Senate budget. The 261 Senate policy sections compares to 156 in the House, MTF said.

While governors have traditionally frowned on the addition of budget amendments earmarking spending for local projects, earmarks accounted for the bulk of the $52.1 million added to the Senate budget through floor amendments. Senators put 305 earmarks, totaling $30.3 million in spending, in the budget through amendments, according to MTF, which said the amendment spending was covered in part by $47 million in savings tied to restricting film tax credit eligibility.

“The Senate debates focused more on policy initiatives than new spending, a likely result of softening revenue collections,” the foundation reported on Friday, saying budget reconciliation will likely be “complicated” by the possibility that revenue supports for the House and Senate budgets will be lowered given recent collection trends.

“A substantial downgrade to revenue is likely, and if it occurs, will require major spending reductions to plans approved by the House and Senate,” MTF concluded.

— Michael P. Norton

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Health advocates laud Baker for Trumpcare stance

#NOFILTER

A news release from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office

As Trump seeks major cuts, Warren releases report on importance of NIH funding in Mass.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following President Trump’s budget proposal seeking massive cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a report on the importance of NIH funding to Massachusetts.

Flickr / Ben Wikler

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Home to dozens of universities, hospitals and research institutions, Massachusetts relies on NIH funding to advance lifesaving scientific discovery, to support thousands of jobs throughout the state, and to inject billions of dollars into the commonwealth’s economy. Sen. Warren’s report was compiled after President Trump’s initial budget proposal to cut nearly 20 percent from the NIH budget, the largest cut to the institution since its founding in 1938.

“Massachusetts has a world-class scientific community that has generated enormous health and economic benefits for our state and for the entire country,” Warren said. “To keep making progress toward critical health care breakthroughs and to stay on the cutting-edge of research, we must protect and strengthen federal investments in the NIH. The cuts proposed by President Trump make no sense, and they must never become law.”

More than two dozen universities, hospitals, labs, biomedical companies, industry organizations, and patients contributed to the report. The findings detail how access to NIH funding has supported breakthrough research in the treatments of cancer, blindness, diabetes and other diseases, improved healthcare outcomes for patients and lowered costs, increased scientific innovation, spurred the careers of young scientists, and driven private sector development.

The report finds that these benefits are not confined to Massachusetts alone, but have had positive impacts stretching across the country and the world.

IN THE NEWS

Amid search for permanent CEO, key departure prompts MBTA management overhaul

BOSTON — The MBTA leadership team is undergoing a sudden overhaul with Acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve departing at the end of June, triggering a series of moves pending the hiring of a permanent CEO.

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Steve Poftak, vice chair of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, was named the T’s interim general manager. He replaces MBTA Chief Administrator and acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve, left.

Shortsleeve’s exit before the expected completion later this year of a search for a permanent general manager prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to announce Thursday that Steve Poftak, the vice chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, would become the interim GM, and Shortsleeve would fill Poftak’s position on the board.

Poftak will himself return to the board after the hiring of a permanent general manager, taking the spot of Lisa Calise, who had planned to step down to focus on her new job as vice president for administration and finance at UMass but has agreed to stay on until the CEO search concludes.

Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville will be promoted to deputy general manager, and Chief Financial Officer Mike Abramo will become chief administrative officer focused on the T’s finances.

The MBTA has been going through a period of transition and reinvention following the disastrous winter of 2015 that fully exposed the system’s financial and structural deficiencies.

Baker credited Shortsleeve and the board for putting in place a $3.7 billion capital plan, controlling the growth of operating expenses, getting new buses on the road, “doubling down” on the purchase of new Red, Orange and Green Line cars that will improve capacity, and investing more than $100 million to make the system more resilient in poor weather conditions.

“The MBTA is still in turnaround mode and needs a turnaround CEO, not a traditional manager,” Baker said of the ongoing CEO search.

— Matt Murphy

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