Actions have consequences, no question about it. But inaction has consequences too. And the inability of Massachusetts lawmakers to agree — in a timely fashion — on the policy details of a $42.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 can indeed have an impact down the road.
Sure, there’s no immediate crisis — a stopgap $5 billion appropriation temporarily keeps state government afloat, while a six-member House-Senate conference committee continues to meet behind closed doors to iron out their differences.
Meanwhile, Moody’s, the credit rating agency, sent out a timely reminder last week to the handful of states beginning the fiscal year without a full-year budget in place that “late budgets are a sign of governance weakness, which, in extreme cases, can be negative for state credit quality.”
It also noted that for Massachusetts it has pretty much become standard procedure. The state has not produced an on-time budget since 2010. While a few states — including New Hampshire and Rhode Island — don’t have a final budget because they are still wrestling with gubernatorial vetoes, only Massachusetts and Ohio have failed to actually pass a budget.
As Moody’s noted, “Late budgets can also expose local governments and other downstream entities to an interruption in state payments.”
Cities and towns do indeed wait for the final word on school funding, and hundreds of programs big and small — mental health programs, or nursing homes struggling to keep their doors open — await final word on whether the fiscal year already in progress will be a lean one or one that will allow growth and expansion.
It’s true that there are some important policy differences in the House and Senate versions of the budget — differences and initiatives worth fighting for.
High on that list of policy proposals worth the fight is the Senate’s approach to controlling prescription drug costs, especially those paid for under the state’s Medicaid program. The Senate proposal has teeth and it has transparency and, therefore, could save an estimated $70 million a year. The House version, well, isn’t even close.
The Senate budget would also add a new tax on vaping products and on opioid manufacturers — both items contained in the governor’s budget, but dropped by the House. The tax on vaping products is estimated to bring in $24 million a year but its nonmonetary benefits are as obvious as they are huge. The opioid excise tax would generate $14 million that could make a small dent in the social costs of the epidemic such drugs have helped spawn.
The different approaches taken to K-12 education funding by the House and Senate could ultimately be resolved in the ongoing Education Committee negotiations over a new funding formula, although the $50 million boost in Chapter 70 funds in the Senate version could make that a little easier.
The Senate did, however, go too far with its attempt to micromanage operations at the University of Massachusetts by freezing tuition and fees. Perhaps the warning shot across the bow of UMass President Marty Meehan is sufficient.
Both House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz and his Senate counterpart Michael Rodrigues are new to their respective leadership posts, but it’s also true that neither is a novice.
Governor Charlie Baker has put his usual not-to-worry spin on the situation, insisting that the extended budget negotiation “usually ends up producing a better product then simply getting there by June 30.” Easy for him to say — he’s got a line-item veto.
These budget negotiations began June 5, so seriously — it’s time to bring this one to a close. Those whose futures rise or fall based on that budget are entitled to know its final direction.