Mass. lawmakers reach agreement to amend budget


BOSTON >> House and Senate leaders struck a deal Wednesday on an annual budget bill expected to include spending cuts that were not anticipated in April and May when both branches debated their plans.

Details about the accord reached by House and Senate negotiators were scarce early Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers not involved in the talks openly wondered about the outcome and even House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he couldn't provide the new bottom line.

"I'm not sure of all the final details myself yet," DeLeo told reporters after a caucus of House Democrats where leaders discussed the details of a bill limiting the use of non-compete agreements in business that was on House agenda for Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr suggested that budget conferees had cut the roughly $39.5 billion bottom line in both versions of the budget by about $750 million, which he said would result in a modest 2.7 percent spending growth rate next year.

Gov. Charlie Baker this week said new projections indicate tax revenues could come in $750 million to $950 million short of the revenue base that the governor and the Legislature used to build their spending plans.

"Fiscal discipline, particularly in the face of declining revenues, is absolutely necessary in the budget process. The House and Senate conferees have wrestled with a major challenge in reducing the bottom line of next year's budget by some $750 million, and they deserve credit for confronting that challenge head-on to produce the Conference Committee report that will now be before the legislature. Let's hope that the modest 2.7 percent increase in the budget we will be asked to approve can stand the test of time in a volatile economic climate," Tarr said in a statement.

Lawmakers this spring said they had focused $1.1 billion in new spending on fixed costs in MassHealth, debt service and public employee pensions. New investments were targeted at local aid, fighting opioid abuse, the MBTA and the Department of Children and Families.

Earlier in the day, House and Senate Ways and Means chairs Rep. Brian Dempsey and Sen. Karen Spilka announced that a deal had been struck for a fiscal 2017 budget in time for it to be considered by both branches on Thursday, a day before the new budget year begins.

The compromise budget bill is not expected to be filed until later Wednesday evening, and comes as legislative leaders have been grappling with how to respond to projected downturn in revenue and economic uncertainty in the markets that was further shaken by last week's vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union.

Estimates of tax revenues needed to support next year's proposed $39.5 billion budget proposals were sharply lowered in the weeks since conferees first sat down this month to begin working on a budget accord, with Gov. Baker indicating on Monday that the shortfall could climb as high as $950 million.

"I think bottom line, I'm sure with the work of both chairs it will be a fair budget. I think that you'll find that those of the neediest here in the commonwealth will be given due attention and it is my hope that some of the major issues such as the opioid situation and obviously the neediest among us will be well cared for and well looked after under this budget," DeLeo said.

The speaker also said he expected that the conferees had produced what they believe will be a "balanced" budget that accounts for the downturn in projected revenues, and not leave it to the governor to make cuts deeper into the fiscal year if economists' fears come true.

With the budget expected to be resolved after Thursday and in the governor's hands, DeLeo said he expects the House to turn its attention next week to Baker's nearly $1 billion economic development bill that was revised by the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies before being sent to the House Bonding Committee for review.


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