For every day that Beacon Hill leaders delay passing the
four-month overdue budget, the state is spending $1.6 million more than it can afford, pouring out money based on an interim
plan approved when state coffers were still brimming with cash.
The day-by-day overspending will make the eventual cuts
significantly more painful, budget analysts say. The state has already laid out some $200 million more than it can cover,
meaning that the approximately $600 million in budget cuts now being prepared by state
leaders will actually have to be more like $800 million.
"The hole is getting deeper daily," said Michael J.
Widmer, president of the non-partisan, business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "The longer the delay, the greater
the pain. We can quickly find ourselves in a full-blown crisis, in a free-fall."
State leaders now agree that this year's budget gap will
probably be about $1.35 billion -- some $250 million more than suggested by Acting Governor Jane M. Swift even last week.
Revenues fell by 11 percent in October alone, compared to a year ago, the state announced
The shortfall will have to be made up through budget cuts
and the tapping of new revenue sources.
House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas
F. Birmingham say they hope to hammer out a budget agreement by Nov. 9, but no special legislative sessions,
budget summits, or public hearings have been scheduled. They still aren't seeing
eye to eye on how much to cut, much less what programs to ax.
Widmer likened the state's predicament to a family coping
with a major salary cut. Changing the family budget may be tough, but the longer the family waits to change its lifestyle,
he said, the deeper the eventual spending reductions will have to be.
"Absolutely you'd have to have more program cuts and more
layoffs" the longer that the state budget remains unfinished, Widmer said.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Mark C. Montigny said that
budget talks are going well, and he expressed hope that a deal can be finalized soon. He said that although House and
Senate leaders didn't plan it this way, the failure to finish a budget
in time for the start of the fiscal year July 1 worked out for the best.
The overtime talks have allowed budget-writers to revise
their expectations for the year and dial back spending levels, Montigny said. He contended the state's overspending would be
far worse now if the budget had been finished in June, when state revenues were robust.
"We didn't really see the bottom fall out until post-Sept.
11," said Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat. "What would it have looked like if we had completed it in time for the first of the
fiscal year? We'd have a disaster on our hands."
But despite the optimistic predictions of fast resolution,
there's still no immediate end in sight to the protracted deadlock. In fact, things have gotten more complicated: The
same legislative leaders who failed to finish a budget in boom times are now struggling to agree on
how to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending.
"What one chamber might call a cut, the other chamber might
call a gimmick," House Ways and Means Chairman John H. Rogers said. "At some point, we have to put the name-calling
Finneran, Birmingham, and Swift have all said they are
sensitive to the severity of the fiscal challenges and the need to act fast. Yet each has so far declined to put forth detailed
cuts to close the budget gap.
"What really strikes me is that we haven't heard any
specifics," said James R. St. George, executive director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts. "Everyone is saying an
early decision is better than a late decision. But we're not seeing that as likely."
Swift has already taken some steps to rein in spending,
imposing a hiring freeze across state government and cutting off virtually all out-of-state travel by state employees.
Swift's budget chief, Stephen P. Crosby, has said the acting governor will take further actions to bring
spending into line on her own if she can't reach an agreement with the
The Boston Herald
Thursday, November 1, 2001
Legislative leaders have commandeered state budget negotiations, leaving most of the
lawmakers appointed to hammer out a deal cooling their heels for nearly three months.
Ostensibly, a six-member conference committee hashes out
differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget, which is now four months overdue.
But the full group hasn't met since at least mid-August,
Meanwhile, October revenues fell $120 million below last
year's levels, bringing the year-to-date shortfall to $407 million.
The Legislature needs to send a budget to acting Gov. Jane
M. Swift by late next week, or forfeit its right to override promised vetoes.
With fiscal chaos emerging in the wake of the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks, the conference committee has been summarily abandoned and replaced with high-level summit-style talks.
House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas
F. Birmingham are now calling all the shots, with nominal participation from their Ways and Means chairmen.
"Now it's kicked upstairs and the `Tom-Toms' beat," said GOP
conferee Rep. John Lepper (R-Attleboro), claiming he's been virtually iced out of negotiations.
It's a familiar pattern between the two leaders.
Two years ago, the budget wasn't finalized until Nov. 17, as
the two men negotiated on the balcony outside Birmingham's Senate suite.
Both Ways and Means chairmen denied their bosses hijacked
the talks, but acknowledged shutting out low-level conferees.
Facing a billion-dollar-plus budget gap, Senate Ways and
Means Chairman Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) said traditional horse-trading has given way to the "crisis management" of
spending cuts and use of reserve funds.
"There is no trading going on," Montigny said. "That's why
there's no reason (for conferees to meet)."
House Ways and Means Chairman John Rogers (D-Norwood) said
meetings are a formality, and that figuring out the worst-case scenario is the most important goal.
GOP conferee Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) said he
doesn't mind ceding negotiations to legislative leaders and Swift, given the unprecedented fiscal crisis.
"I'm a big process guy," Knapik said. "I just think this is
such an extraordinary time that all that is somewhat forgiven."
But bypassing conferees is risky for Birmingham, who's
trying to shed his Beacon Hill-insider image as he runs for governor.
"(The budget impasse) continues to push him back inside the
State House," said Democratic consultant Dan Payne.