AP NEWS

Baker Files Policy-filled $23.7M Spending Bill

May 4, 2019

By Matt Murphy

State House News Service

BOSTON -- Gov. Charlie Baker filed a policy-heavy, $23.7 million spending bill on Thursday to provide funding for state legal settlements and public defenders coping with increased caseloads.

The governor also renewed a number of his previous requests of the Legislature, writing in a letter that he’d still like to see them clarify the state’s marijuana laws to allow hemp to be grown on land preserved for agriculture and to explicitly ban the use of welfare benefit cards to purchase marijuana products.

The midyear spending bill proposes to make an additional $14 million available for settlements and judgments and allocates $5 million for the Committee for Public Counsel Services to cover new projected expenses.

It would also put $2 million more into the Department of Revenue’s child support enforcement division, the bulk of which would be reimbursed by the federal government, and requests $2.5 million for “smaller expenses,” including mandated dental and vision coverage contributions and additional funding for district attorneys.

The 17-page bill also includes 23 outside policy sections.

One section seeks to ensure that the Probate and Family Court can guarantee a child’s health insurance coverage by requiring a non-custodial parent to contribute to insurance premiums or uninsured medical expenses incurred by the parent with custody.

Another section would change the state’s pension and workers’ compensation laws to ensure that someone receiving workers’ compensation who qualifies for retirement benefits “receives a combined benefit of no more than the average rate of regular compensation...”

While the spending bill is smaller than many supplemental budgets, the governor, in his filing letter to legislators, said he wanted to renew his request for additional spending authorization for the new Department of Family and Medical Leave, as well as funding for a fentanyl task force.

The bill would also put into effect a number of collective bargaining agreements, including contracts with unions representing police, correction officers, state university employees and employees of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Baker, in his letter, said that he had previously recommended the creation of a funding reserve to cover the costs of these contracts once they were ratified and put into effect, which total $9.2 million.

He is now recommending that the Legislature authorize that spending from an existing collective bargaining reserve.

The spending bill was filed as the Legislature awaits word from the administration on April revenues. April is the biggest month for tax collections in the fiscal year, and will be watched closely by legislators after the state barely climbed out of its revenue hole for the year with strong revenues in March.

With March tax collections, the state was trending $19 million above the estimates used to build the fiscal 2019 budget.

And while mid-month numbers are not predictive, the Department of Revenue recently reported that collections of $1.1 billion through April 15 were up $10 million, or 0.9 percent, over the same period in 2018.

The Legislature in late March completed work on a $136 million supplemental spending bill that was signed by Baker even though it omitted a number of policy riders that the governor was seeking.

Baker did not choose to refile those provisions in this bill, but in his letter to House and Senate leaders said he wanted to renew his requests for those sections that were held back by the committees on Ways and Means and are still pending.

Those provisions include an increase in the ceiling on the assessments the Department of Public Utilities can charge electric and gas companies, as well as the addition of New Year’s Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day to the list of holidays for which time-and-a-half pay will be phased out.

Stakeholders on both sides have said those holidays were meant to be part of last year’s “Grand Bargain” agreement, but were somehow left out of the law.

“To be determined,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said in February about the holidays. “We think that’s a discussion related to the grand bargain and we want to let that go through the process.”

Baker also said he still wants to see the same penalties extended to marijuana retail stores that apply to stores that allow customers to use EBT cash assistance to purchase alcohol or Lottery tickets, and has proposed to alter the definition of a stun gun to “fully account for the difference between stun guns and traditional firearms.”