Mass. Senate backs off on debt limit amendment


BOSTON >> The House and Senate on Thursday came to an agreement on a bill creating a new $50 million program to finance small bridge repairs, but not before annulling a Senate amendment that had been adopted with the intention of "maintaining the integrity of the debt limit."

With the state on track to hit its statutory debt limit for the first time since its implementation in 1989, Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year filed the annual bill funding local road repairs through state borrowing with a provision to exempt from the debt ceiling large amounts of borrowing authorized in the 2014 transportation bond bill, including the Rail Enhancement Program (REP). The language prevailed through the House and two Senate committee redrafts.

Then, last Saturday, as the Senate debated the bill (S 2455), Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton offered an amendment to remove that language and continue to count the REP and other bonds against the cap.

"This is just an extraordinary measure that went through quietly in the governor's bill and the House, and we need to stop it now," said Joyce, a Democrat who previously chaired the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets.

The amendment passed on a voice vote, but the Senate on Thursday agreed in an informal session attended by two senators to a new version of the bill offered by the House. The new version again put the rail borrowing program outside the state's bond cap.

"This is an issue that impacts every single taxpayer in Massachusetts and not just today but for the next 30 years," Joyce told the News Service on Thursday after the Senate negated the amendment. "It's simply incredible to me that at the 11th hour with virtually no discussion, no debate and no real thoughtful analysis of the impact this will have on our already staggering debt obligation we are authorizing the administration to borrow as much as an additional $6.7 billion."

Joyce, who did not attend Thursday's session, said the exemption would move roughly $6.7 billion outside the statutory debt limit, referring to the total bond authorization for the REP program. A Baker administration budget official said the administration expects to bond about $2 billion of the total authorization.

Since 1989, the state has had a statutory limit in place to cap the total amount of outstanding direct state debt. The limit automatically increases by 5 percent each year, and is fixed at $21.786 billion for the current fiscal year.

The state cannot issue debt in excess of the statutory debt limit, and hitting that ceiling would prevent the state from issuing certain types of bonds to pay for large-scale capital projects, therefore slowing spending on things such as infrastructure improvements.

"Currently we're borrowing to this limit, we're right now at $20.26 billion," Joyce said on the Senate floor Saturday. "By excluding up to $6.6 billion in bonds as the governor would have us do, we are essentially allowing the administration to dramatically and virtually unfettered increase the debt limit."

Administration and Finance and state Treasury officials have pointed to the 2014 authorization of the Rail Enhancement Program -- $1.86 billion in bonding through 2020 to finance the Green Line Extension project, the purchase of new Red and Orange Line trains, the Knowledge Corridor rail extension, South Station improvements, and the South Coast commuter rail extension -- as a main reason the state is fast approaching its debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling came into full view late in 2015, when state finance officials reported Massachusetts could hit its debt limit for the first time in fiscal year 2017, which began July 1. An official in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said Thursday that updated projections now show the state remaining just under the limit this fiscal year and bumping up against it in fiscal 2018.

Because the administration now expects to remain beneath the debt limit this fiscal year, Joyce said any proposal to exclude debt from that limit should wait until next year, when the new session of the Legislature can give the issue more attention.

"The Legislature should play a very meaningful role in this. At the end of the day, if the next Legislature suggests raising the debt limit that would be an informed decision," said Joyce, who is not seeking re-election this fall. "There are other approaches we could seek ... rather than give a carte blanche approval for the administration to avoid the limit that has been set by law after a lot of meaningful discussion and analysis and debate."

The Legislature is expected to enact the small bridges and highway funding bill this weekend as it concludes formal sessions for the year.


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