You Know Budget Season's Started When the Storm of Prepared Statements Erupts

Friday, March 6, 2015

With all the wild shots going off this week, the new budget season in Massachusetts sometimes felt more like hunting season.

Members of the opposing party, advocates for various causes, and all-purpose critics were firing away at Charlie Baker Wednesday, just minutes after he unveiled his budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Matt Fenlon, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said, “The key to a budget for Massachusetts voters is how painful cuts made by Republican Gov. Baker will be balanced with maintaining needed services.  Because of key investments made over the past eight years by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Democratic legislature, Massachusetts is No. 1 in education, clean energy and veterans services…Now it’s up to Gov. Baker to work with the Democratic legislature and deliver us a budget that allows Massachusetts to stay a national leader.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association found the governor’s budget “troubling for its lack of vision and absence of meaningful investments in education and other vital community services.”  
The budget, said the MTA, “is ultimately a proposal that shortchanges students, families and our cities and towns by including cuts to kindergarten expansion programs and providing inadequate funding for our public schools, colleges and universities.”

A group called Raise Up Massachusetts asserted that the governor’s budget “fails to make needed investments” in priorities like “good public schools,” “affordable higher education” and “a transportation system that lets people get to work and customers get to businesses.”
Noah Berger, once a top aide in the Massachusetts Senate and now president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said, “Governor Baker has wisely identified investing in education, transportation and local communities as budget priorities to help working families and strengthen our economy.  This budget does not, however, make significant new investments in those areas.”

Two big reasons for putting out an immediate statement on a  governor’s budget are to signal one’s displeasure to the members of the House and Senate, who will soon be coming up with their own versions of a budget, and to lay the groundwork for a mini-campaign in the legislature aimed at shaping the budget more to one’s liking.
For the parties who pretty much like the governor’s budget as is and who worry about the factors pushing state spending ever higher, budget-roll-out day is also a time to reach out and try to influence a legislator.  They become dervishes of prepared statements as fast as any naysayer.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones noted that “Governor Baker inherited a sizable deficit from the previous administration, but he has risen to the challenge by forging ahead with a creative budget plan and accompanying legislation that seeks to address a myriad of key issues, including ongoing service problems at the MBTA, slowing the growth of Medicaid, and providing much-needed relief to working families by doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit over a three-year period.”
Jones said, “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House Caucus to ensure that Governor’s Baker’s initiatives are fairly considered as components of the House budget in the weeks and months ahead.”

A group called Building on What Works said it wanted to applaud the governor’s “targeted approach to improve education in Massachusetts through the Partnership Schools Network Fund included in the Administration’s FY 2016 budget request.”
Health Care For All’s executive director, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, said her group “welcomes” the governor’s budget proposal because it “maintains the Commonwealth’s long-standing commitment to providing access to affordable health care.”  She was “particularly pleased that the budget extends this year’s decision to restore MassHealth (Medicaid) coverage for full dentures.” 

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance said, “Governor Baker’s FY ’16 budget represents a welcome and continued break from our state’s recent economic policies, particularly since it does not seek to raise taxes.”
I always nod admiringly at statements that are careful not to rough up the governor, because where does that get you, while inviting the legislature to correct the governor.  Take the words of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, for example: 

“Although we recognize the financial constraints facing the Governor and the very difficult choices reflected in this budget proposal, we are deeply disappointed with the funding allocated to the Judicial Branch…We look forward to working collaboratively with the Governor and the Legislature to ensure that the Judiciary is funded at a level that ensures that justice is effectively delivered, and that basic criminal justice and public safety needs are met.”
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Thompkins called Baker’s new budget “an encouraging start” and, in the next sentence, expressed concern “for programs that target the root causes of incarceration” because he thinks the governor has shortchanged those programs.

As the budget process continues, Thompkins said, he is looking forward “to working with the Suffolk County delegation in the Legislature to make sure that the corrections community has a voice in this important discussion about Massachusetts priorities.”
In the sheriff’s world, folks don’t scream bloody murder about budget items, they just hold a lot of important discussions. 

The best immediate statement on the Baker budget, in my opinion, came from Senate President Stan Rosenberg.  No coincidence, it was also the shortest statement I saw.
“The Senate is committed to making government work more effectively and more efficiently for working families across the Commonwealth.  As we study the Governor’s budget proposal, we will be looking for clear cut evidence that this budget is intended to fulfill these same objectives,” the President’s statement said.

It was respectful of the governor, but not fawning.  It enunciated a goal no one can quarrel with, a government that works better for working families, but committed the Senate to no specific course of action or to a certain programmatic agenda.  It pointed to what the budget process is fundamentally about: evaluating a mountain of facts and making countless hard decisions.  All that in 44 words.
An honorable mention goes to the sum-up line from the top lobbyist for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the estimable John Regan.  “The governor’s proposed budget takes constructive steps toward ensuring that the Commonwealth lives within its means,” he said.

Leave it to those persnickety business types to bring up limits when we’re talking about spending public dollars.  Party pooper.


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