Governor Baker's budget addresses gaps, fills need and is predictably cautious. It required ambition that perhaps the Legislature can provide.
The $39.6 billion budget calls for a 3.5 percent increase in spending and anticipates an increase of 4.3 percent in revenue in the next fiscal year. It also addresses a projected deficit of $635 million.
The budget adds 281 new social workers to the deeply troubled Department of Children and Families. Underfunding this agency translates to children falling through the cracks, resulting in abuse or even death. As promised, the governor is investing heavily in confronting the state's opioid addiction epidemic, proposing $140 million in total spending which includes $1.4 million to fight drug trafficking. This will be focused on the state's gateway cities, of which Pittsfield is one.
Governor Baker wants to add $200 million to the state's rainy day fund, which had been depleted in recent years to fill gaps in the general fund. This practice earned a slap last year from bond rating agencies and must be addressed before it has a tangible impact upon Massachusetts' ability to borrow.
The governor plans to save $300 million by tightening up MassHealth, and while that program merits a serious analysis, as does any state program, it is not clear how the administration knows it can save that amount. The number of recipients who don't qualify for Mass Health and can be removed from the program is an unknown, as is the number of enrolles who can be moved into managed plans at a savings in cost. The point of MassHealth is to provide health insurance, and recipients should not be cut or shifted to meet an arbitrary monetary figure reached to help balance the budget.
The governor is determined not to raise taxes under any circumstances, but the Democratic Legislature should explore that option when appropriate. An example would be an increase in funding for preschool education, which by making it more likely that students will succeed through grade 12, is a wise investment in the state.
Massachusetts' lazy "Taxachusetts" moniker has long been rendered irrelevant — the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, for example, reports that businesses taxes are lower in Massachusetts than in 38 other states. That is not an argument for large tax increases, but it does indicate there is room for modest hikes to support programs, like education, that benefit business by building a strong workforce and encouraging families to move and settle here.
House Speaker (for life) Robert DeLeo has evidently ruled out any tax hikes, but Senate President Stan Rosenberg may entertain them in response to his concerns and those of members that the governor's budget inadequately addresses educational and infrastructure needs. In instances for spending hikes will pay genuine dividends, nothing should be taken off the table before being given serious consideration.