Baker apologizes for underfunding accounts


BOSTON >> Spurred on by a Wareham caller who said she's owed $6,000 and her bills are piling up, Gov. Charlie Baker apologized Thursday and said he would ask lawmakers for action on a supplemental budget bill by the end of the month.

The alleged underfunding of accounts looms as a major disagreement between Baker and the Legislature, including accounts that pay the bills of attorneys who serve as public defenders and sheriffs. Legislative leaders say their $39.1 billion budget is balanced but Baker has warned that reversing $250 million in budget vetoes will push the budget out of balance given the underfunding of accounts.

Emergency family shelter and snow removal accounts are also underfunded, according to Baker, who is arguing for a spending plan that addresses known spending obligations so the state can avoid chasing after budget problems month after month.

On his regular monthly Boston Public Radio appearance, Baker heard from a caller who identified herself as Deborah and said her household relies on income from the Committee for Public Counsel Services - the group of attorneys that represent indigent criminal defendants - upset that paychecks are tied up in legislation.

"When will they finally be paid, and why is it that every single year the Legislature has to vote on a supplemental budget to cover these costs?" asked the woman, who said she was calling from Onset, a village in Wareham. "This is a constitutional right for poor people to have representation. You owe my family over $6,000 and we can't pay our bills. And I'm thinking of sending you a bill to cover the late fees and interest charges that we're incurring."

The plea seemed to resonate with the governor who said he would try to speed up action on the legislation and offered an apology.

"I will talk to the folks in the Legislature and see if we can get this done by the 31st of July, OK? She is raising an absolutely legitimate point," Baker said. He said, "It's a legitimate issue and I apologize on behalf of the Commonwealth."

Jim Braude, a co-host of the monthly "Ask the Governor" program, said there was a "mountain of emails" on the same subject.

A fiscal 2016 midyear spending bill (H 4512) that includes $14.2 million for public defenders, rocketed through the branches of the Legislature last week, landing on the governor's desk, requiring only his signature to become law.

Another midyear spending bill (H 4517) closing the books on fiscal 2016, which the governor said would only have a net cost of $6.2 million, is still in the House Committee on Ways and Means. That bill includes legislation facilitating the conveyance of the State House property rights to an abutter.

On the same day he signed the fiscal 2017 budget, the governor also filed a $279 million spending bill (H 4506) for fiscal 2017, which includes $42 million for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

"The reason we did that is in the hope that we can get that passed early so that we are in a position to be able to make those payments all the way through the year," Baker said. He said, "This is a huge issue and a big problem."


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