Truth in budgeting:
The hidden code to breaking state budget numbers

By Barbara Anderson

— September, 2004 —

Long-time CLT members are accustomed to our keeping track of state budgets year-to-year, so they can see how much state government is growing. This has been difficult the last few years as items like the MBTA, pension funding, and some Medicaid funding are funded differently or moved "off-budget."

Unlike the Dukakis years — when we had to spend huge amounts of time and effort digging out the secrets behind his "11 balanced budgets in a row" — we now have access to the fiscal experts on Beacon Hill.

The Department of Revenue is always helpful with revenue numbers; for the budget data we went to the independent state Comptroller's office and to Governor Romney's Office of Administration and Finance. With the help of a budget expert in the latter's Fiscal Affairs Office, we were able to add the FY'99-'05 numbers to our chart.

As nearly as we can determine, Beacon Hill leaders don’t publicize budget comparisons themselves because they are writ on shifting sands, and official numbers that are used by the bond rating agencies must be exact. There are also various accounting procedures, some of which add in federal fund transfers and other complexities. We look only at the state operating budget, the one you read about in newspapers when the various budgets are presented and discussed, and we try to adjust for new definitions of the word "budget."

The best source of "right now" numbers is the state bond prospectus, which experts in budget writing put together. But with the state's budget history, don’t bet on the numbers; some of the adjustments are still a mystery to us.

For instance, we don’t know what caused the big jump in FY'97 that wasn’t there at the time. And keep in mind that each year’s numbers are an estimate until the comptroller's office closes the books several months after the budget year ends.

The baseline budget that we use is the last Dukakis budget. Note that the first Weld budget is a genuine decrease in dollar spending; the apparent decreases in later years reflect "off-budget" movement. By the way, these are actual dollar amounts, not adjusted for inflation.

— September, 2008 —

In 2005, not being forensic accountants with expertise in obscure budgeting practices, and realizing that "truth in budgeting" was elusive: difficult to find and harder to follow year-to-year.  When it became a matter of comparing apples to oranges CLT/CERF stopped keeping track.  With more of the state's billions in overall spending being moved "off-budget" where it is less visible or reported, the task of following the money became almost impossible.

But in early 2008, Harold Wolfe, a CLT activist with an MS degree in Computer Science, decided to try to analyze the state budget in his free time. The link below will take you to the results of his extraordinary labors.

Compiled and presented by Harold Wolfe



Published State Budgets:  FY1988 - FY2003
and how to read them
by CLT



Fiscal Year

(in billions)

FY’88 $11

Dukakis "Campaign for President of the U.S.A." budget, followed by fiscal crises, fee and tax increases including the "temporary" income tax hike.

FY'91 $13.63

Last Dukakis budget.

FY'92 $13.42

First Weld budget.

FY'93 $14.7
FY'94 $15.5
FY'95 $16.4
FY'96 $16.9
FY'97 $18.5
FY'98 $19.6
FY'99 $20.2
FY'00 $22.4
FY'01 $22.1

Shift in MBTA funding, not a spending cut.

FY'02 $22.8
FY'03 $22.4

Some Medicaid funding (from a new nursing home tax) moved off-budget.

FY'04 $22.6

Some Medicaid funding, some MassHealth, new pension funding, moved off-budget. If added back in, FY’04 current estimate would be $23 billion.

FY'05 $22.979

(As proposed by Gov. Romney) With pension funding, this amount would be $24.2 billion. With Medicaid-tax spending back in, it would be $24.645.

At this point, with so much state spending moved "off-budget," we gave up.
See "The Complete Truth In State Budgeting" above.
We also gave up on our "Where Would You Cut" project, due to an utter lack of interest
from Beacon Hill legislators and our critics.

See also:
Point of Reckoning: Two Decades of State Budget Trends 
By Cameron Huff 
  MassInc Policy Brief    March 2008