Realism in the State Budget

Earlier this month, Governor Baker released his first budget proposal.  While there is a lot to complain about in the proposal, I was heartened by the Governor’s effort to budget honestly for the costs that are hard to control, necessarily lowering expectations for spending on some broadly supported programs — programs that I have consistently fought for, like local education aid.

I wrote a few weeks ago about our pattern — Beacon Hill’s pattern — of low-balling expenditure estimates and hoping for positive revenue surprises that will balance the budget later.  In the current fiscal year, that gamble has worked out badly.  Revenues are coming in as expected, but expenditures are coming substantially higher than expected.  The resulting gap (pegged by Governor Baker at $768 million after Governor Patrick had already cut approximately $250 million) is a huge problem because we have had to shave agency spending mid-year — disrupting operational plans and crimping expected public services across the state.

Like many of my colleagues, I was chastened by this year’s bad budget outcome and feel a strong sense of duty never to let it happen again on my watch.  So, I took favorable note of Governor Baker’s budgeting an 8% increase in MassHealth spending in next year’s budget.  In one sense, that is terrible news — roughly half a billion that we won’t have to spend on other important things.  But it is a signal that he doesn’t intend to hide the problems.

Similarly, he budgeted realistically for spending for advocates for indigent defendants.  Like MassHealth, the bar advocates line item is a caseload-driven entitlement which is very hard to control.  The legislature has routinely under-budgeted this line item, filling it in with supplemental budgets later in the year.  Again, the Governor is facing reality early.

The Governor’s realism on these and other routinely-fictionalized items makes it harder for him to fund more popular programs.  So, for example, he raises statewide Chapter 70 education aid only 2.4%, despite the fact that state revenues are expected to rise by roughly 5%.

Even as it holds down popular programs, the Governor’s budget show serious signs of stress — it depends on a deferral of vendor payments, a reduction in contributions to our reserve funds and an early retirement incentive program.  Many of us in the legislature are not comfortable with any of those elements.

Through the years, I have fought consistently for increases in Chapter 70 education aid — over all and for the communities in my district.  Recently, I have fought especially hard for Watertown which has historically gotten a raw deal from the aid formula.  Additionally, I have fought for programs like the special education circuit breaker, charter school reimbursement and kindergarten grants which benefit my communities (Boston, Watertown and Belmont) — disproportionately.

I care as much as ever about those programs, but this year my top priority is to make sure that we only promise what we can deliver.   Many of us, including me, feel that we should raise more revenue for transportation and other state services, but the votes are not there for that this year.  It appears we will have to do the best we can with the revenues we have.

In most years, cities and towns can assume that the Governor’s budget proposal is a floor for local aid and that as the legislature works the budget over, local aid awards will only increase.  This year, while I think the Governor’s local aid numbers will most likely survive, it is possible that we will vote to reduce them after we further scrub the numbers. I do feel it is safe to assume we will not reduce them below the current year’s levels.

UPDATE: 3/27/15 – We received over 100 responses to a survey of website visitors about revenue and the state budget.

Here are the results of the survey, which was conducted from: 3/12-3/26/2015:

How do you feel about the revenue freeze?


We need new revenue to pay for the things that we care about. 64 56.60%
We have to live within our means, we will have to make sacrifices. 36 31.90%
Other 7 6.20%
I don’t have an opinion. 4 3.50%

If we had to cut one area of the budget, which area should it be?


Executive & Legislative 18 15.90%
Other 13 11.50%
Economic Development 12 10.60%
Prisons, Probation & Parole 12 10.60%
Pensions 12 10.60%
State Employee Health Insurance (GIC) 5 4.40%
Conservation & Recreation 4 3.50%
Law Enforcement 4 3.50%
Prosecutors 4 3.50%
Constitutional Offices 4 3.50%
Debt Service 4 3.50%
MassHealth (Medicaid) 3 2.70%
Transitional Assistance 3 2.70%
Early Education 2 1.80%
Higher Education 2 1.80%
School Building Authority 2 1.80%
Other Law & Public Safety 2 1.80%
K-12 Local Aid: Chapter 70 1 0.90%
K-12 Local Aid: Other Non-Chapter 70 Aid 1 0.90%
Public Health 1 0.90%
Elder Services 1 0.90%
Juvenile Justice 1 0.90%
Transportation 1 0.90%
Courts & Legal Aid 1 0.90%
Libraries 1 0.90%
Environment 0 0%
Mental Health 0 0%
Child Welfare 0 0%
Disability Services 0 0%
Other Human Services 0 0%
Housing 0 0%

If we could increase one area of the budget, which area should it be?


Transportation 43 38.10%
K-12 Local Aid: Chapter 70 16 14.20%
Early Education 15 13.30%
Other 7 6.20%
Higher Education 5 4.40%
Child Welfare 5 4.40%
Mental Health 4 3.50%
K-12 Local Aid: Other Non-Chapter 70 Aid 3 2.70%
Housing 3 2.70%
Environment 2 1.80%
Disability Services 2 1.80%
Transitional Assistance 2 1.80%
Libraries 2 1.80%
School Building Authority 1 0.90%
Conservation & Recreation 1 0.90%
MassHealth (Medicaid) 1 0.90%
Economic Development 1 0.90%
Courts & Legal Aid 1 0.90%
Law Enforcement 1 0.90%
Debt Service 1 0.90%
Public Health 0 0%
State Employee Health Insurance (GIC) 0 0%
Elder Services 0 0%
Juvenile Justice 0 0%
Other Human Services 0 0%
Prisons, Probation & Parole 0 0%
Prosecutors 0 0%
Other Law & Public Safety 0 0%
Constitutional Offices 0 0%
Executive & Legislative 0 0%
Pensions 0 0%

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

17 replies on “Realism in the State Budget”

  1. Understanding the budget crunch, we must also see the need for some incremental tax increase. Transportation and infrastructure can not be left aside to decay further.

  2. Transportation (mbta) and aid to schools are my priorities. As a financial advisor I know that state employees pay a smaller percentage of their health insurance than most workers. It seems like time to lower these costs to the state.

    1. Fixing the MBTA needs to be job one. I have no problem with the prospect of paying higher fares or taxes if the MBTA’s rail infrastructure can be brought up to par with others in the developed world. I favor cutting spending on the legislative and executive branches of government, and I would also like to see deep cuts to the entrenched, top-heavy management at the MassDOT.

  3. Serious cost reduction in state government requires teams of objective cost reduction experts, not elected officials worried about votes or state employees worried about their jobs. Based on my experience, cost savings can be found in all departments. Some savings will be small, but they add up, and some will be large, like whole areas of activity that can be eliminated or automated. The state should retain a firm of experienced cost reduction consultants who, especially, can cut through all the politically-generated or politically-sacred costs we are now stuck with.

    If legislators and state employees are simply picking through which of the big program areas to cut, and ignoring the operational side and the rationale of each program, they are not getting to the heart of the problem.

  4. From a process point of view, The state needs to vastly improve purchasing and require performance guarantees for both delivering on budget and the delivered good or service are work as specified. Examples of disastrous purchasing are the Big Dig, the Department of Employment assistance information system, Department of revenue info system (which works better the the DUA system) and The MBTA new Locomotives. It seems that in all these major contracts stuff has gone off the rails and the state got to pay more for not meeting specifications or delivery dates. At a minimum contracts should have performance and delivery bonds that the state can use to offset costs for not getting stuff on time and that works as specified. This may mean that we do not purchase such complex stuff or be allowed to change designs once contracts start, but at least on big things, the contractor and the state know what should be delivered and when.

  5. The MBTA and Commuter Rail are in rough shape. I have heard people talk about improving them, but when it comes to funding and actual improvement, little gets done. If we had a transit system that were truly world class, it would relieve car congestion and make us more attractive to businesses, residents both in Boston and around the capital city, and also tourists. I own a car, too, but I do not like being solely dependent on it. Buses are no substitute for good trains. I take the train to Harvard Square rather than the #1 bus even though it is twice as long, time-wise.

  6. Will, it’s good to see this level of analysis and reporting coming back from our representatives (that’s you!). I agree with you that realistic budgeting for non-optional line items is far preferable to let’s-pretend magical thinking.

    I filled out your survey before I read the comments below. I also choose transportation as by “only one” item to bump. The consensus (so far) is striking.

  7. Will, I know that today’s mood is not favorable to gas tax increases, but we should keep leaning on that and looking for other sources of revenue. It seems crazy that gas taxes don’t even cover the costs of maintaining our roads (I have read that this is the case, it is certainly true at the national level and has been for years according to data that I got from the FHWA).

    I would also wonder at the possibility of congestion charging for some portion of the Boston (Cambridge? Somerville? Brookline?) area. It’s unlikely that we’ll get any traffic relief through more road building (not only is it unlikely to work, it’s also unlikely to happen) and I think that helping to subsidize the T with a Boston-area congestion charge would be seen as fairer than a statewide tax, whether gas, sales, or income. If we did this, I’d hope to spend a little of that money helping to clean up some of the messy areas that dissuade people from biking into work (people who say “I wish I could do what you do, but I cannot cope with the crazy traffic in/on [fill in the blank]”).

    1. Yes, I like the gas tax. I’m also open to congestion charges. I think that depends in practice on open road tolling and we are a few years away from having the ability to roll that out more broadly.

      1. What would happen if we raised the gas tax and put automated tolls (no toll collectors) on the highways. Then we made the MBTA free. This would never happen because too many political friends would lose jobs. But think about it.

  8. We live in a single party state, and having to make decisions and prioritize spending is a refreshing approach. Real analysis and review is not only a necessary process, but a healthy one. This is not your Grandfathers budget….

  9. The Legislature really needs to adequately fund our Commonwealth’s public education systems, from early education, to K-12, to higher education. I’d like for us to still be able to grow a future workforce here at home.

  10. I was interested to see that the governor is continuing his pursuit of the earned income credit regardless of what happens to the film industry tax credit. The credit benefits low-income people most. Income equality is an increasing source of suffering, especially in the greater Boston area. Income equality and education must be addressed if we are to transform the disenfranchisement of diverse segments of our community. The budget must make this a priority somehow.

  11. 40 Burton St. Good theater for all of us especially the young, but all of us need to have the great literature before us.
    Will, come to the Faneuil Library at 7pm on May 5th to hear my final reading- after 70 years in the Square- of Celebration by the our local 57 Readers. Best John

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