Surprise, surprise: Legislature breaks for the holiday with no deal on budget

By The Lowell Sun | July 2, 2019 

BOSTON Unable to agree on an annual state budget by the July 1 deadline, House and Senate Democrats are breaking for the Fourth of July holiday and now hoping that a budget deal might come next week.

After holding sessions open Tuesday while waiting to see if a budget accord emerged, the House and Senate adjourned early Tuesday afternoon and called for informal sessions Wednesday.

After the session, Second Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Paul Donato of Medford told the News Service the House is not expecting the budget conference committee to file its report this week.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, who gaveled out Tuesday's Senate session, also said any consideration of a budget deal, if one is reached, will take place next week.

Donato said the House is hopeful that the four Democrats and two Republicans on the conference committee -- led by Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz -- will continue talks through the Fourth of July holiday and coming weekend.

Legislative leaders say negotiators are making progress but there's no tangible evidence of that since the committee is meeting privately and won't discuss what they've agreed upon or what's holding up a final deal.

The budget bills contain many similarities but take different approaches in key areas, including school aid, prescription drug price controls, a tuition and fee freeze at the University of Massachusetts, aid to the struggling nursing home industry, and new taxes on vaping products and opioid manufacturers.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has also speculated that the conference committee members "are likely to revisit" tax revenue assumptions because fiscal 2019 revenues have vastly outpaced projections, however, legislative leaders have not given voice to revisiting tax estimates.

Of the 46 states that started the new fiscal year Monday, only two are still waiting for their Legislature to finalize a fiscal 2020 budget -- Massachusetts and Ohio, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

There are five other states where the Legislature has passed a final budget but it has not yet taken effect. Three states -- Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin -- were awaiting the governor's action on the budget as of Monday and the governors of New Hampshire and North Carolina have vetoed the final budget passed by lawmakers, according to NASBO.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers have passed a resolution to keep the Granite State's government operating at present funding levels through Oct. 1.

A $5 billion interim budget that Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito signed last Thursday is keeping state government operations going and administration officials said that funding is sufficient for the month of July.

The missed budget deadline did not bother Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who said on Monday that extra time at the negotiating table can ultimately result in a better budget.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said he was "accepting" of giving the conference committee a little extra time if it's going to mean progress, for instance, toward wringing out prescription drug expenses from the state's Medicaid program.

"It's certainly something that I'm concerned about but I'm not alarmed about it yet," he said. "Obviously we're into the beginning of the new fiscal year. We need to get a budget done soon. If it takes a little bit longer to get it done right and deal with some of the major policy issues, like how we're going to deal with reducing the cost of prescription drugs, I'm patient about that."

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance on Tuesday rejected the notion that a later budget is a better budget and said "lawmakers look petty and desperate" by trying to justify their inability to meet a deadline.

"While legislative leaders defend their tardiness, MassFiscal would like to remind the public that a late budget usually results in a far less transparent process," spokesman Paul Craney said in a statement. "House and Senate legislative leaders will rush to pass this budget very quickly after its released. It's a tactic leadership has been relying on to move their agenda and keep the public in the dark."

As for how long Tarr is willing to wait, the minority leader said his patience won't last forever.

"We do at some point need the certainty and the stability of having a state budget that will carry us through the fiscal year. That's a balance and right now I think the balance has not been disrupted but certainly if this goes on a lot longer then it will be concerning," he said.

Last year, Massachusetts was the last state in the country to have its annual budget in place.

[Michael P. Norton and Matt Murphy contributed to this report.]

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