State budget still facing steep cuts

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BOSTON >> A week after Gov. Charlie Baker's administration disclosed that revenue forecasts for next year could be deeply overstated, budget leaders on Monday appeared no closer than last week on a plan to address the gap and continued to pledge cooperation across the branches and with the administration.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg on Monday suggested that the budgets produced this year by the House and Senate - both totaling roughly $39.5 billion - could require "quite a bit" of spending to be trimmed from their bottom lines.

While it appears state leaders are working across the aisle on a potential single plan to address the problem, the plan to address the gap so far can best be characterized by what leaders hope to protect, rather than where they plan to cut. Local aid, substance abuse prevention and early education funding would all be "very difficult to try to cut," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said.

The Baker administration and legislative leaders are swapping proposals to deal with a revenue shortfall of between $450 million and $750 million in fiscal 2017, which begins on July 1.

Baker, like DeLeo, said Monday that he supports spending on opioid abuse prevention proposed in the legislative budgets, and would be reluctant to touch another big spending area: local aid for cities and towns.

"I can tell that you my goal is to try to preserve predictability around local aid for cities and towns. Most of them have already voted on their budgets and have already teed up what they think next year's supposed to look like and I'd hate to go back and make them revisit that," Baker said.

The governor also appeared to rule the state Medicaid program, MassHealth, off the table for cuts, despite the program accounting for nearly half of all annual state spending.

"We haven't proposed any cuts to Medicaid eligibility as part of this," Baker said, saying he also did not plan to recommend any reductions in covered health services.

One way the state could save money in fiscal 2017, according to the leaders, could be to forgo the annual sales tax holiday weekend in August, an annual effort to spur consumer spending by suspending the 6.25 percent sales tax for two days.

"The Senate has increasingly been skeptical about whether this is a good use of twenty, now twenty-five million dollars so we always review this issue at about this time. It's on the table for discussion," Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said.

DeLeo and Baker also said skipping the annual holiday, which has been used as an incentive for Bay State consumers to shop locally rather than cross the border to make large purchases in New Hampshire, should be part of the revenue discussion.

"I think in the future that may be possibly something we may have to take a look at," DeLeo said.

Speaking after a meeting with Gov. Baker and other legislative leaders, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said he and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Karen Spilka, are still trying to firm up an understanding of the scope of the problem, which was disclosed nearly a week ago.

"We are working, as Senator Spilka pointed out, together and with the administration to really settle on numbers with respect to how we view FY17 and whether adjustments need to be made," Dempsey said. "We're working on that currently and making good progress and certainly I think responding to concerns raised relative to the revenue issue."

Asked if anything was off the table when considering budget fixes, Spilka said "we're certainly looking at everything."

"The information is still, to some extent, in a state of flux," she said. "So we're re-evaluating and touching base and, as Chair Dempsey said, working with the administration, the secretary of (administration and finance) as well, to get information and we'll be continuing to talk and resolving our budget."


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