June 11, 2017

On Beacon Hill: With potential $1B storm on radar, foggy fiscal forecast looms

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Rep. Juana Matias of Lawrence, left. and Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, testify at the start of the June 9 Public Safety Committee hearing.

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

BOSTON — Storm clouds have been gathering for months over state finances, but as the end of the fiscal year fast approaches it’s the dense fog that has rolled into Beacon Hill casting the darkest shadow.

May tax collections reported last week by the Department of Revenue solidified the status quo. The state is on track to finish the year in three weeks close to half a billion dollars short of revenue targets.

For the glass-half-full set, the fiscal drought did not get worse after last month. Taxes paid in May exceeded expectations by $30 million, ending a four-month slide and leaving a $439 million revenue hole to fill and one month of receipts left to tally.

But that may have been cold comfort for the penny pinchers in Secretary Kristen Lepore’s office who, according to Gov. Charlie Baker, have their scalpels out “nipping and tucking” to trim any fat from the budget bones, and probably a little bit of meat as well.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

“Every year things happen, and because things happen there are many line items in the budget that don’t end up actually spending their full appropriation. We just started paying a lot more attention to that earlier than we normally would,” Baker said early in the week about how his administration is approaching this year’s budget-balancing Rubik’s Cube.

So what kinds of things have been happening? That’s anybody’s guess.

The governor’s budget shop — and the governor himself — has been tight-lipped about how it’s managing the state’s spending in the face of the revenue drizzle. And legislative leaders, after working themselves into a tizzy in December about the governor’s choices to cut $98 million, seem content to let him nip-tuck as much and as often as he sees fit.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said last week he doesn’t know how the governor has been controlling spending, but hasn’t heard any complaints from advocates either. And Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he’s confident the governor will share his strategy when he’s ready.

“So that’s his job, and we’ll work with him, but I’m hoping and looking forward to getting some more information soon,” he said in a radio interview.

So until Baker decides to let a little sunshine into his process, budget watchers will have to hold their breath and wait for the storm to pass.

The length of the storm is undetermined but it was punctuated Friday by news that Standard & Poor’s has lowered the state’s bond rating.

The Boston Globe also reported last week that days after House and Senate budget negotiators met for the first time Monday to begin the push-and-pull over the fiscal 2018 budget, top legislative and administration officials huddled with economic advisors to get a read on what to expect in fiscal 2018.

The report said some economists believe as much as a $1 billion will need to be taken out of the budgets passed by both the House and Senate — not surprising given tax collection trends — but DeLeo said the same day that no final decision had been made.

— Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Immigration bill prompts fiery debate, gubernatorial rebuke
  • Warren on financial predators; Markey on Trumpcare
  • Moore’s committee advances bill to curb campus sex assault
  • McGovern rails against proposed food benefit reduction
  • House pushes handheld cellphone ban for drivers

THE BIG DEAL

Immigration bills draw crowd, protest and rebuke from governor

By Andy Metzger

The red-hot debate over illegal immigration was embodied by the large crowd that turned up at a hearing room Friday morning for discussion of bills that would limit the state’s role in federal law enforcement.

Colin A. Young / State House News Service

Bills that would limit the state’s role in federal law enforcement drew a large crowd to the State House for an uncommon Friday hearing.

As the hearing got underway, Public Safety and Homeland Security House Chairman Harold P. Naughton Jr., D-Clinton, asked the crowd to “bear with us” in the “crowded” and “hot” hearing room. Members of the public sat in the aisles and crowded along the walls of the room.

Earlier in the morning, opponents of bills (S.1305/H.3269) filed by Democrats Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Rep. Juana B. Matias, D-Lawrence, interrupted a press conference held in support of the legislation that would bar state authorities from detaining someone solely at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Shortly after the hearing began, Gov. Charlie Baker’s office released a statement of opposition from the first-term Republican who generally refuses to take a public position on most pending legislation.

“The safety and security of our communities is a top priority for our administration, and I oppose this bill that would prohibit law enforcement from enforcing bipartisan policies that have been in place for 10 years and prevented violent and dangerous convicted criminals from being released back onto our streets,” the governor said in the statement.

“This legislation would also prevent the Massachusetts State Police from upholding our policy to detain individuals for federal authorities that have been convicted of heinous crimes, like murder and rape, and weakens current public safety measures that are designed to keep us safer.

“Our administration does not support making the Commonwealth a sanctuary state and urges the Legislature to hold this bill in committee and reconsider ways to ensure Massachusetts remains a welcoming place while maintaining public safety,” the statement said.

A LITTLE BIRDIE

Warren on new law holding financial advisers accountable

Markey: Must-watch video of colleague scrutinizing Trumpcare process

#NOFILTER

From a press release by state Sen. Michael O. Moore’s office [Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.]

Bill aimed to curb campus sexual violence gains initial committee approval

BOSTON – The Joint Committee on Higher Education unanimously voted to advance legislation filed by Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, the panel’s senate chairman, to help address the issue of college campus sexual violence.

The bill (S.706) is a re-filed version of Moore-sponsored legislation that passed the Senate last year but ultimately was not considered by the House of Representatives before the end of the legislative session.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resources Center, one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college. An estimated ninety percent of students do not report incidents of sexual violence. This legislation would codify and complement federal requirements, and establish new state-level policies for all higher education institutions in the Commonwealth.

Courtesy Sen. Micheal O. Moore's office

State Sen. Mike Moore

“Through improved training, transparency and enforcement of policies, this bill supports initiatives that work to protect students, and ensure that postsecondary institutions are implementing systems that students can trust,” Moore said.

The bill requires all students and staff to receive mandatory annual sexual violence prevention and awareness programming as well as be notified, via email and on the school website, of the campus policies including information on the resources available to sexual assault victims both on and off-campus, and of the rights of the accused and the alleged victim.

The bill also requires schools to designate a confidential resource advisor to serve as a liaison for students. When requested by a student, the confidential resource advisor shall provide information on reporting options and the consequences of each of the options and coordinate with the schools to arrange academic accommodations and interim protective measures, such as changing dorms.

This legislation requires that staff responsible for participating in disciplinary proceedings will receive appropriate training to make sure they are knowledgeable about how to best approach these incidents.

The bill requires schools to establish a memorandum of understanding with sexual assault crisis centers, as well as adopt policies that clearly outline the responsibilities and the sharing of information with law enforcement that is not in violation of state and federal laws.

The legislation would establish a campus safety advisor at the Department of Higher Education to advance statewide campus safety initiatives.

NOTED

McGovern ‘ashamed’ of $1.40 per meal SNAP benefit

As President Donald Trump is proposing to cut funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a Worcester congressman is instead floating the idea of investing more into food benefits.

“The bottom line is that the SNAP program is, in my opinion, as it now stands, an inadequate benefit,” U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee’s Nutrition Subcommittee, said on a conference call last week organized by the Food Research & Action Center.

Office of Congressman Jim McGovern

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern

“The average SNAP benefit right now is $1.40 per person per meal. You can’t buy a cup of coffee for that, and the idea that we would be talking about reducing that or making it a greater hardship for people who qualify, in my opinion, is misguided and wrongheaded and heartless and is something we need to stop.”

More than 312,000 Massachusetts households received SNAP benefits in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data, released in January. That year, SNAP provided about $1.2 billion in food benefits to a monthly average of 785,778 people, the USDA said.

According to the Food Research & Action Center, Trump’s budget proposes to cut $193 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years. More than 42 million Americans rely on the food assistance program, a number McGovern called “unconscionable.”

“I’m ashamed of that as a United States congressman, and I personally believe that Congress ought to be focused on how do we eliminate hunger in this country,” he said.

— Katie Lannan

IN THE NEWS

House advances handheld cellphone ban for drivers

An emergency would be about the only reason a driver could use a handheld cell phone under legislation that won initial approval from the House last week.

Unanimously endorsed by the Transportation Committee earlier this year, the legislation (H 3660) would bar drivers from using a handheld phone to make a call, use the camera or use social media. The House ordered the bill to a third reading June 7, the step before a vote on passage.

U.S. Air Force

While roads and cars are increasingly safer, distracted driving appears to be causing a spike in accidents.

The legislation allows drivers to use phones as a hands-free device or to “activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function.” The bill also allows drivers to use a handheld cell phone to call for medical assistance, police intervention and other emergencies.

Hands-free device bills advanced in the House and passed the Senate last session, but were not enacted. Wednesday’s House action midway through the first year of a two-year session could portend better chances for the bill reaching the governor’s desk this session.

Advocates have called upon lawmakers to expand upon the 2010 law that bans text messaging while driving, arguing a complete ban on handheld phone use would be easier to enforce and make the roads safer.

— Andy Metzger

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