State budget spat signals partisan shift

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BOSTON — Winter hasn't officially arrived in Massachusetts, but a political frost is settling on Beacon Hill.

A simmering dispute between Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democratic-controlled Legislature over state finances boiled over this past week. Baker announced nearly $100 million in unilateral spending cuts to the chagrin of lawmakers and advocates who said the governor was wielding the budget ax prematurely and without regard to vulnerable citizens who rely on programs that were cut.

Baker replied that Democrats were vastly overstating the severity of the reductions to a state budget that totals nearly $40 billion and suggested lawmakers helped create the situation by overriding $231 million in spending vetoes last summer.

In most states, such partisan feuding would be routine.

But the first two years of Baker's four-year term have been notable for an aura of bipartisan cooperation and lack of finger-pointing between the administration and legislative leaders, even when policy disagreements emerged. The cordiality had even become an irritant to some progressive Democrats, who pressed party leaders to be more forceful in their criticism of the governor.

The recent budget flap indicates that may well be the case in the next legislative session starting in January and as Baker gears up for a likely re-election bid in 2018.

One day before Baker was to leave on a weeklong trade mission to Israel, newly elected Democratic state party chairman Gus Bickford fired off a statement calling on the governor to postpone the trip in light of his "unexpected and unexplained" spending cuts.

"Instead of jetting out of state, Governor Baker needs to stay home and explain to the people of Massachusetts how they'll make up for his millions of dollars in cuts to programs and services that our state's families and businesses depend on," said Bickford.

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The Republican was quick to push back.

"Partisan politics is a funny business, don't you think?" Baker asked in response to a reporter's question Thursday, hours before flying to Tel Aviv. He went on to say his fiscal actions were anything but unexpected or unexplained.

"We made a decision in June to make some difficult decisions on the state budget," he said, but lawmakers "chose to reject almost all of those."

The governor said in deference to Democratic leaders he agreed to wait five months and see how state finances performed over that period.

"We now know what happened over the course of the next five months. The revenue isn't there to support the level of funding and spending that the Legislature appropriated and we took what we believe are appropriate actions to ensure that the state budget which is required to be constitutionally balanced, will be," said Baker.

Democrats argue that by the administration's own calculations, state revenues are running only about $20 million below projections for the first five months of the fiscal year, so why the rush to cut? House Speaker Robert DeLeo suggested the unilateral cuts were an attempt by Baker to "achieve policy objectives" while circumventing the Legislature.

DeLeo said lawmakers would consider restoring at least some of the cuts next month, a stance backed by Senate President Stan Rosenberg. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers.

Rosenberg has also endorsed the possibility of tax hikes, something DeLeo has opposed to in the past but now will not rule out. Any tax increase would almost certainly be greeted by a gubernatorial veto.

It all seems to point to a more contentious relationship between the legislative and executive branches in the coming session than in the one that just passed.


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