January 3, 2018

Baker releases budget funds earmarked by Legislature

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker is starting the new, election year off on a note that will please members of the Legislature.

The News Service confirmed Tuesday that Baker has lifted his hold on funds that lawmakers earmarked in this year’s $39.4 billion state budget for district priorities.

“After reviewing year-to-date tax revenue collections, including preliminary December results, the administration has determined that there is sufficient revenue to support earmark spending and has released its hold on those spending items,” Sarah Finlaw, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, said in a statement to the News Service.

Releasing the funds will smooth over a sore point between the administration and members of the Democrat-controlled Legislature, with lawmakers now able to tout spending in their districts and Baker no longer facing the friction that comes with holding back on spending favored by the House and Senate.

Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato of Medford told the News Service Tuesday he was happy that funds were being released for a program addressing domestic violence in his district. Many lawmakers were “disappointed” by Baker’s freezing of earmarks in October, he said.

“In their opinion earmarks are a necessity to provide certain programs for each community and the legislators feel very strongly that when they put it in it’s an important aspect for their districts,” Donato said.

On Oct. 25, nearly four months into the new fiscal year, Baker disclosed that he was not releasing funds for earmarked budget items. “Until we are much more confident about the state of the commonwealth’s fiscal affairs this year, we’re not planning to release any earmarks,” he said at the time.

The governor’s comments came after House Speaker Robert DeLeo publicly urged Baker to release $2 million for the UMass Innovation Voucher program, which subsidizes the use of University of Massachusetts labs and equipment to support manufacturing.

Tax revenue collections over the first five months of fiscal 2018 were up 4.8 percent, or $452 million compared to the same period in fiscal 2017. Through November, collections are exceeding budget benchmarks by $204 million.

Tax collections have faltered badly in the second half of each of the last two fiscal years, triggering full-blown budget crises on Beacon Hill.

Donato said released earmarked funds will help Portal to Hope, a program that assists people affected by domestic violence in Everett, Medford, Malden and Winthrop.

“The fact that it hasn’t been there for the last six months has made a major impact on what that organization can do to assist people who are in dire straits,” Donato said.

Underfunded state programs, growing MassHealth costs, and overriden budget vetos continue to put pressure on the spending side of the state budget. Last month, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation identified a $100 million spending gap that it largely associated with the state’s MassHealth program.

The Legislature this summer and fall restored $118 million in net state spending to the state budget by overriding the governor’s vetoes.

While the administration cited December collections as a factor in the decision to release earmarks, tax revenue statistics for last month were not available on Tuesday, with the administration planning to release that data on Thursday.

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