Governor Baker Submits His First Budget

Governor Charlie Baker released his first annual state budget proposal on March 4 and, generally speaking, most spending was held to no more – and in some cases less – than last year’s funding levels.  This is true for civil legal aid and most of the rest of the judiciary budget – key BBA priorities.  Neither does it provide for increases in the minimum salaries for assistant district attorneys and public defenders.

Although disappointing to be sure, these outcomes were not especially surprising, given that the Governor had identified a budget gap he estimated at $1.8 billion, and that he had stated he would nevertheless hold to his pledge not to increase any taxes or fees.  Required by state law to balance the budget, he chose to limit spending as the primary means to do so.  In total, the budget adds up to $38.1B, a 3.0% increase over the current fiscal year 2015 (FY15).

The Governor’s plan has been formally submitted to the Legislature, which will spend the next three or four months developing its own budget to send back to the Governor.

The BBA will of course continue to advocate for appropriate funding for the courts, and for a $10 million increase in funding for civil legal aid, as recommended by our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts in their recent report Investing in Justice.

(As you’ll recall from previous Issue Spot entries, that report used independent economic analyses to demonstrate that money invested by the state in civil legal aid actually produces a positive return on investment in the form of savings on back-end costs for things like health care for domestic-violence victims and shelter for the homeless, as well as the economic growth fueled when residents obtain their rightful federal benefits.)

Scroll down to learn how you can help with that effort!  But first, a brief primer on the budget process is in order:

The state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30, so the budget currently being debated is for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16), which begins July 1, 2015.  The process begins in December or January with an agreement – known as the consensus revenue estimate — among the Governor, the Senate, and the House on how much money the state expects to collect during the coming fiscal year.  This year, they concluded revenue would expand to 4.8% higher than projections for the current fiscal year.

The Governor, with the help of his Executive of Office of Administration and Finance (ANF), then decides how much of that estimated revenue to spend on each of the hundreds of line-items that the budget is broken down into.  The budget may also incorporate proposals to increase revenue available to the state, either from one-time sources (such as this year’s plan to divert $300 million in capital-gains taxes into the General Fund rather than the “rainy-day” fund) or from on-going sources (such as a permanent hike in a tax or fee).

Next, the budget is delivered to the Legislature in the form of a bill, known as H. 1 (or “House 1”) in odd-numbered years and H. 2 in even-numbered years.  It is ordinarily due in late January, but when a new Governor takes office, as happened this year, there’s a grace period until early March.

Whether or not there is a new Governor, the timeline for the Legislature remains basically the same: The Ways and Means Committees of each house will soon hold a series of joint hearings across the state, each focused on a different area of the budget.  (The BBA is primarily interested in the hearing on the judiciary, which has yet to be scheduled.)

After hearing from House members about their individual budget priorities, the House Ways and Means Committee releases a budget, expected on April 15 this year.  Historically, it makes significant changes to the Governor’s bill, and this year should be no different.  House members then have about two days to file proposed amendments, which are debated over two or three days two weeks later, before a final vote is held.  Next, the Senate follows a similar process, with a final vote on their budget typically taking place in late May.

Because the two houses’ budgets inevitably differ, a joint conference committee then spends several weeks reconciling the differences.  Their goal is to deliver a budget to the Governor before the July 1 start of the fiscal year.  The Governor has ten days to act on the budget, and he wields “line-item veto” power (denied to the President, but available to Governors in many states), meaning he can approve the budget as a whole while vetoing or reducing specific line-items, but the Legislature can then override these changes with a two-thirds vote in each house.

But wait — the process is not quite over, because there are frequently supplemental (“supp”) budgets enacted during the fiscal year, as new costs arise (such as, well, extraordinary expenses for snow and ice removal) and as revenue numbers come in either higher or lower than anticipated.  And when a large hole opens up in the budget, a Governor can make unilateral “9C” cuts to the executive branch’s budget and urge the Legislature to do the same in the remainder of the budget, as Governor Baker did recently, and as Governor Deval Patrick did last fall.

(If this kind of “inside baseball” interests you – that is, if your eyes didn’t glaze over while reading the last several paragraphs – you should definitely attend our “Budget 101” event next Thursday, March 19, aimed at demystifying the budget process.  The program starts at 5:30 PM and features top staffers from ANF, the Senate President’s Office, and the House Ways and Means Committee.  A networking reception will follow.)

As you can see, we are still at the early stages of this process for FY16.  Nevertheless, the BBA has been working for months to advocate for our priorities of court funding and civil legal aid.  We have had meetings with leadership of all three branches of government and with more than a dozen legislators and their staffs, and we will continue to do so.

You can help in this effort by contacting your Senator and Representative, to let them know you value civil legal aid, that it actually saves the state money, and that you want them to make it a priority in their discussions with Ways and Means.  You can find talking points here, a fact sheet on our Task Force report here, and contact information for your own legislators here.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association