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Massachusetts lawmakers finally send spending plan to the governor — a month late

Massachusetts House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz talks to reporters about the status of the four-weeks-late state budget outside the House Chamber on July 27, 2023. "Certainly, you know, we would love to have been able to get it done by July 1," the North End Democrat said.
Sam Drysdale
Massachusetts House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz talks to reporters about the status of the four-weeks-late state budget outside the House Chamber on July 27, 2023. "Certainly, you know, we would love to have been able to get it done by July 1," the North End Democrat said.

The annual Massachusetts budget emerged after a seven-week closed-door negotiating session late on Sunday — a month after the start of the new fiscal year.

It was forwarded to Gov. Maura Healey on Monday for consideration. It's a $56 billion bill that incorporates parts and pieces from both the House and the Senate spending plans.

Chris Lisinski of the State House News Service explains some of the new ideas for spending and new revenues in this budget.

Chris Lisinski, SHNS: This is the first annual budget that's making use of revenue from the new surtax on household income above $1 million that voters approved in November. I think the way the final split ended up being about a 53-47 split, with, education getting 53%, transportation getting 47%. This is about $1 billion worth of that spending.

That ranges across a whole bunch of different investments, from early education to transportation investments at the MBTA here in eastern Massachusetts. That's the biggest and most significant brand-new form of spending, because that's surtax was not in place before. But there's increases in spending basically everywhere you look across the budget on most areas of public life here.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: There are some notable initiatives that were not funded in this compromise budget. Chris, are we likely to see, for example, online lottery sales be brought back to life this session?

I would say it's not unlikely that that could come up again. You know, the House might try to push that forward either as a standalone bill or weave online lottery authorization into another bigger bill moving forward, especially as we get to this time next summer when we have the end-of-formal-session burst.

What kind of fate that's going to meet with in the Senate, I'd say, is still a very open question at this point. Senate Democrats said that they wanted to take up a vote on online lottery as a more standalone matter because of the mixed feelings in that chamber about the topic. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that day to come.

The work of the conference committee, which many criticize for being done behind closed doors, arrives at a compromise that ultimately brings together pieces from the House and pieces from the Senate. They are not able, for example, to create a third way forward by splitting the difference between two amounts, for instance, and creating a third amount. Is that correct?

Technically, that's correct. But, as lawmakers so often do, they circumnavigate their own rules when it suits them. There are several categories of this budget where the actual line-item spending is higher than either the House or Senate versions of the bill approved. I think one such example is the Executive Office of Health and Human Services got even more money for MassHealth administration than either branch originally proposed. That's something that the legislative rules say should not happen, but no one up here is really crying foul about the process.

Oh, interesting. You know, I've spent a couple of hours skimming Section 2, with line-item appropriations. And I see the Berkshire Flyer has been funded for $20,000 to create a last-mile transportation solution. There's lots of local appropriations in there. In addition to the Berkshire Flyer, there's money for Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, to name a few. Are these earmarks?

Yes. The budget is jam-packed with earmarks. And if you watch any of the process during the spring, quite a lot of the amendment process is really just earmarks, as each individual lawmaker makes their case to Democrat leaders, usually behind closed doors — why they need $20,000 for a gazebo construction project on this town Common and $1 million for this community center renovation.

That is a very big piece of the way the budget process unfolds. But it's also the annual state budget. So, it funds things like MassHealth, local aid to cities and towns for public education, for public school transportation costs — basically anything you can imagine that requires state dollars to be spent is in some way affected by this bill.

So, from this section, does this funding still hang in the balance? I mean, it's being forwarded to the governor. She can choose to strike individual programs or cut appropriated amounts from Section 2 with her veto power?

Yes, that's right. The governor does get a line-item veto power over the budget. It's a very big question mark. This is the first time that Gov. Healey is going to get to review an annual state budget. We don't particularly know how interested she's going to be — you know, going in line-item-by-line-item, reducing by $10,000 here, $100,000 there. So, we'll have to check back in about 10 days, which is how long she gets to review it.

Of course, lawmakers still do have the recourse to override gubernatorial vetoes. It's just that those require formal roll call votes that can only be taken in a full formal session. And at least at this very moment, we are not necessarily anticipating any of those in the next few weeks.

Well, is there a history there? Have full formal sessions a third of the way into August been held and does that imperil lawmakers' vacations?

No, it's very rare for formal sessions to take place in August. In even years, the formal business for the term is actually supposed to end July 31. That's encoded in the legislative rules. In odd years, so the first year of a two-year lawmaking term, there's no such formal break called for. But, basically, all lawmakers treat August as if it's the same kind of break they get in year two.

They venture off on their own vacations. On Monday, we saw lawmakers bidding each other farewell for several weeks, like they were kids departing summer camp. So it would certainly be unusual to see a formal session scheduled sometime in August.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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