Senate loads up on earmarks despite tight fiscal picture

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BOSTON — Despite tight finances that may force lawmakers to make wholesale budget revisions, senators on Wednesday night were in a giving mood, adding spending measures for anniversary celebrations in Peabody, Amesbury, Mendon and Westfield as well as a soccer program in Lawrence, a winter tourism campaign in Hull, the MetroWest Food and Music Festival and a theater in Hyde Park.

As they make their way through hundreds of amendments to a $40.3 billion spending plan built on shaky revenue estimates, state senators have added millions of dollars in new spending including earmarks they say support important local programs.

By 1:30 p.m. Thursday, senators added $35.9 million in spending to their fiscal 2018 budget, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Doug Howgate, the foundation's director of policy and research, said earmarks accounted for about $24.7 million of the spending by his tally.

On Wednesday evening, the Senate adopted dozens of amendments adding funds to the proposal fiscal 2018 budget and dedicating that money for local programs. Encountering little resistance, the amendments were adopted on voice votes, often after a short speech from the sponsor explaining what need it would meet.

The Quincy church where Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are buried lacks a sprinkler system, and the church has sold some of its historic silver to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars for needed electrical upgrades, said Sen. John Keenan, who secured $25,000 for safety improvements at the building.

The Waltham Tourism Council is in line for $75,000 to support its events including an annual steampunk festival, which Sen. Michael Barrett described as a major driver of tourism and economic activity.

A Dr. Seuss museum opening next month in the author's hometown of Springfield could see $100,000 from the state for its "interactive bilingual operations," and $25,000 was approved for an "emergency relocation" of the Millville town hall after the Army Corps of Engineers last summer deemed its historic building unsafe for use.

The Legislature typically adds spending to the budget proposed by the governor, and lawmakers often take the opportunity to steer resources to their local priorities. The House included scores of earmarked spending in the budget it approved in late April.

Some of the amendments adopted Wednesday had been targets of Gov. Charlie Baker's midyear cuts in the past.

Sen. Don Humason said the $50,000 for Westfield's Thunderbolt Council to host an annual airshow was cut last year, and Sen. Barbara L'Italien said the $30,000 for a Lawrence entrepreneurship program targeting Spanish speakers met the same fate. Both earmarks were added again this year.

Baker in December cut $98 million in spending from the fiscal 2017 budget, citing soft revenue growth and underfunding of certain accounts. Those cuts included $67 million in earmarked spending.

Revenue collections are trailing benchmarks by $462 million so far this fiscal year. Several lawmakers have said next year's revenue estimates may need to be reduced when a conference committee works out the final 2018 budget, creating some questions about where final spending levels will land.

Before signing this year's budget, Baker issued vetoes in 301 line items and slashed 497 earmarks worth $60.6 million. The Legislature reversed $231.6 million in vetoes and let about $35.5 million in spending reductions stand.

Baker said at the time he was not trying to send a message to lawmakers that earmarks should be avoided on principle, but said he turned to them as a place to reduce spending and, in some cases, saw them as excessive additions for programs and departments that he said were already adequately funded.


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