BOSTON >> Gov. Charlie Baker's budget for energy and the environment includes a slight reduction over current spending levels, but the administration still hopes to substantially increase the amount spent on the environment in the future, the governor's top environmental official testified Tuesday.
In an October 2014 gubernatorial candidates forum, Baker promised that within his first few years in office he would increase spending on the environment to 1 percent of the state budget. Baker's budget proposal for fiscal 2017 includes $39.55 billion in total spending, but allocates $234.3 million for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, a less than 1 percent decrease from anticipated fiscal 2016 spending, according to Beaton.
Environmental advocates calculate that spending on environmental program in Baker's budget would total less than 0.6 percent of the overall budget. Questioned Tuesday by Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, about the timeline for achieving a 1 percent level of spending, Beaton demurred, but said the goal remains.
[Listen to: Audio Clip of EEA Testimony]
"One percent for the environment for the commonwealth is still a goal. It is still I believe a tangible, achievable goal," Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton told members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees. He said, "It is something that we certainly hope to achieve. Do I have a crystal ball and can say exactly what that timeframe is? I unfortunately cannot say that or commit to that at this time, but it's certainly something that we are still committed to making happen someday under this administration, and I'm confident that as the economy improves and as the fiscal situation of the Commonwealth improves we're going to ... incrementally get there."
Beaton said the executive office saved money through early retirements and the budget would consolidate human resources departments within the various agencies under his authority, offering a standard level of human resources services throughout the secretariat.
Erica Mattison, legislative director for Environmental League of Massachusetts, which backs the increase in environmental spending, said in a statement, "Secretary Beaton also painted a rosy picture about the state of Massachusetts environmental agencies, but if you look at the numbers, they tell a different story."
"While it's good to hear that development permits are getting out the door in a timely fashion, the environmental advocacy community is concerned that other responsibilities, such as monitoring and enforcement, which are important for natural resource protection and safeguarding public health, are lagging," Mattison said in a statement. She said the Department of Conservation and Recreation is receiving a 20 percent cut compared to what the Legislature passed in fiscal 2016.
Beaton also touted the success in reopening and improving Massasoit State Park in Taunton, a resource he highlighted during last year's budget hearing.
The budget, which has yet to be taken up by the House or Senate, would add $950,000 for parks and recreation, increase the amount of retained revenue available for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and spends an additional $908,000 for five additional Department of Public Utilities staffers to manage compliance with a 2014 gas pipe leak law.
"We have the most aggressive pipe-replacement plan in the United States," said Department of Public Utilities Chairwoman Angela O'Connor. O'Connor told the News Service, the utilities' plans call for complete replacement of pipe infrastructure within 20 to 25 years, while the national average is "closer to 50" years.
The law was intended to reduce sometimes dangerous and environmentally harmful leaks of natural gas.
Beaton said that employees who should be funded through the operating budget continue to be paid through the debt-financed capital budget, but the administration is working to correct that.
There are about 130 operations employees funded through the capital budget throughout the secretariat, according to Eric Rebello, chief financial officer for Energy and Environmental Affairs. He said when those employees depart, new employees are hired through the operating budget.
Asked the timeline for moving the employees off the capital budget, Beaton told the News Service, "As soon as possible."