Baker bites into earmarks with budget solve

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BOSTON — A Boston counter-terror center, a green crab trapping program and the Basketball Hall of Fame felt the effects of the state's financial troubles last week as the governor cut $67 million in earmarked spending from this year's budget.

The earmarks for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), the North Shore crab trapping and the hoops museum in Springfield totaled $850,000 with all but $100,000 of that going toward the police intelligence center, which also receives federal funds.

Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, hoped the $50,000 for the Great Marsh trapping program would help officials establish a connection between the marsh - where crabs wreck the grass and prey on clams - and the market, where crabs sometimes turn up on restaurant menus.

"These funds were going to take us to the next step," said Hill, who said he agrees with Baker's approach to balancing the budget and hopes the financial picture will improve later in the fiscal year.

The counter-terror center had not yet budgeted in the earmarked dollars, significantly lessening the impact of the cut.

"The proposed cuts to the BRIC are for funds that were not allocated for use. In other words, the BRIC had made no plans as to the spending needs for this money. As such the cuts have no effect on ongoing plans around BRIC spending," Boston Police Lt. Mike McCarthy told the News Service in an email.

Baker made $98 million in unilateral spending cuts Tuesday in the $39.25 billion fiscal 2017 budget despite a growing economy and unemployment rate at a 15-year low. In addition to soft revenue growth, the governor said the accounts he cut are not affordable given the certainty of spending in other, underfunded state budget accounts.

The net savings from Baker's cuts to earmarks totaled $53 million because of revenue loss associated with some cuts, according to a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation analysis.

"I get the notion of an earmark, but in many cases you had earmarks of a couple hundred thousands of dollars on programs that were budgeted at tens of millions of dollars," Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday. "And I get the fact that on the margins these are difficult choices."

As budgets have fallen out of balance in recent years, Baker and his predecessor Gov. Deval Patrick have used the office's power to make midyear cuts to the executive branch, which is known as 9C authority for its place in the general laws. Governors can make such cuts unilaterally without requiring the consent of the Legislature.

An analyst for Moody's Investors Service on Wednesday said the Baker administration's "willingness" to balance the budget through spending cuts was a significant factor in determining Massachusetts is "moderately prepared" to weather a recession.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka criticized the governor for the recent cuts, and the speaker and Senate President Stan Rosenberg have expressed a willingness to potentially pass a new spending bill restoring funding.

Ranging in size and scope from $7.4 million for pediatric hospitals to $10,000 for weeding Floating Bridge Pond in Lynn, the earmarks usually represent priorities of individual lawmakers often with a more parochial focus than other areas of state spending.

"This continues a troubling trend of financing MassHealth funding shortfalls through hospital payment reductions," Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association Vice President for Government Advocacy Mike Sroczynski said in a statement.

"There are some substantial cuts to MassHealth that we're certainly concerned about," said Brian Rosman, policy and government relations director at Health Care for All. He said there are no direct cuts to benefits in the state's Medicaid program, but he is concerned about the ramifications of reducing subsidies to health care providers.

A more than $900,000 cut to an AIDS programming line item "could threaten the care and services that Fenway Health and other organizations provide to thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C," Fenway Health President & CEO Dr. Stephen Boswell said in a statement. He said, "We urge the legislature to restore funding to education, prevention, and outreach efforts related to HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C."

On Twitter, Cambridge Rep. Marjorie Decker wrote she was "blindsided" by a $110,000 earmark eliminated by Baker for Food For Free, which provides food to certain Cambridge students when they are not in school.

Although more than $7 million of the cuts were made to tourism-related subsidies, the leader of the state's hotel and motel trade group said he is not complaining.

"Of course we're disappointed, but so is everybody that gets cut," said Massachusetts Lodging Association President and CEO Paul Sacco. He said, "The governor has to do what he has to do, and I don't think anyone on this list is shocked that there was a 9C cut on them."

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which Sacco ran in the Swift and Romney administrations, was the line item that received the second largest cut, falling from $8.9 million to $1.3 million. Cuts to earmarks within that line item stripped $200,000 from the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, $25,000 earmarked for attracting a major championship to the Ponkapoag golf course in Canton, and $75,000 for public safety at the Head of the Charles Regatta.

"The $75,000 earmark, which will offset a portion of our $350,000 annual public safety costs, will go a long way towards ensuring the region can continue to enjoy the benefits of the event each year," the Head of the Charles told the News Service in a statement, which said that in 2014 the regatta had $51 to $55 million in economic impact on the state, citing McKinsey & Company.

Baker also cut $50,000 for a transportation planning grant to the 128 Business Council, where Monica Tibbits-Nutt is the executive director. Tibbits-Nutt is one of the five people Baker appointed to a control board that meets almost every week in an attempt to fix the MBTA.

"It's not great, but we'll make it work," Tibbits-Nutt told the News Service about the earmark cut. She said the study aims to investigate the possibility of a commuter shuttle to complement MBTA service in Watertown. She said despite the cut the study would go forward and the group will "figure out another source of funding." She said, "We're in a really tough fiscal position here in Massachusetts."

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