Baker signs budget; no line-item vetoes leaves some in Berkshires delegation surprised

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A month late and with the blueprint left intact, Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a $43.3 billion state budget into law, without ever using his red pen.

Several local lawmakers were surprised that Baker didn't exercise his line-item veto power to trim any spending in the budget, especially pet projects for individual legislative districts.

"In my 17 years in the Legislature, I've never seen a governor sign without using some veto power. That speaks volumes with the relationship we have with the governor," said state Rep. Williams "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

Added state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams: "Usually, most of the earmarks are taken out, but the governor acknowledged he was pleased he was signing a balanced budget."

One of those earmarks left untouched was $370,000 for the 2020 pilot run of the Berkshire Flyer, a proposed train route connecting Pittsfield and New York City.

Baker leaving the budget as is was met with criticism from the government watchdog group MassFiscal.

"It's a failure in our democratic process when the branch of government charged with reigning (sic) in spending does not exercise its duty to use the line item veto," MassFiscal spokesman Paul Craney said in a statement. "Even Governor [Deval] Patrick regularly vetoed the excessive earmark habits of the legislature."

Though Baker did not strike any spending from the budget, he did use his veto pen seven times, knocking out language within line items that primarily proposed new reporting requirements for studies by state agencies.

The budget signing Wednesday came after the Republican governor spent more than a week reviewing the spending plan that was delivered to him by the Democratic-controlled Legislature on July 22, three weeks after the start of the state's new fiscal year.

The new budget does not raise taxes, but it increases overall spending by 3.3 percent over the most recent fiscal year. It projects tax collections to rise 1.4 percent over preliminary revenue estimates for last year.

The anticipated boost in state revenue allowed lawmakers and the governor to set aside $476 million in the state's stabilization fund, often referred to as the "Rainy Day Fund," that will bring the total to $3.3 billion by June 30.

"A strong economy and prudent fiscal management have allowed our administration ... to invest in key areas like housing, education and efforts to fight opioid misuse," Baker said in prepared remarks.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, says the $3.3 billion the state has saved is for emergencies only.

"If and when that next recession comes, we'll have the resources to deal with it," he said.

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Baker touted how the spending plan has the highest-ever level of state funding for public schools in the commonwealth. He views the $5.2 billion in Chapter 70 aid a key toward paying for the proposed multiyear overhaul of the school finance formula and implementing changes to the foundation budget, the minimum spending required of each school district.

Berkshire lawmakers called the $5.2 billion a "down payment" on school funding reform.

"We need to do more work on comprehensive reform of Chapter 70 for elementary and secondary schools," Pignatelli said.

The House and Senate will take up the reform when they return to their formal session after Labor Day.

Barrett says the problem with the funding formula is the distribution of state education money, which was changed several years ago from being based on wealth to student enrollment in each district.

"I think it could be a combination of the two, but this is a complex problem to solve," he said.

Also, the state will spend $246 million across several state agencies to deal with the opioid crisis and substance misuse in general. The majority of the money is earmarked for prevention and treatment services the Berkshires needs.

State statistics show that 40 people died last year from an opioid-related overdose in the Berkshires. From 2010 to 2018, there were 210 overdose deaths in Berkshire County, according to the Department of Public Health.

"Honestly, we could use more treatment beds, and communities having access to recovery centers and recovery coaches," Hinds said.

While the opioid problem, numerically, is worse in larger, urban areas, Pignatelli says the Berkshires needs more services.

"I'd still like to see a rehab home in South Berkshire, just like the ones in Pittsfield and North Adams. We can't ignore South County," he said.

On the economic development front, Barrett was pleased to see nearly $14 million set aside to directly improve workers' skill sets, especially in the Berkshires.

"We need more job training, not more bureaucracy," he said.

State House News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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