State Budget Deal Getting “closer by the Hour,” Spilka Says
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- With the state budget now 12 days late, Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said Thursday afternoon that negotiators are getting “closer by the hour” to striking a deal, and that policy differences between the branches are no longer standing in the way.
Spilka, who is poised to become the next Senate president in two weeks, is the Senate’s lead negotiator over a budget that is expected to include more than $41.5 billion in spending for the fiscal year that began on July. 1.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country currently without a permanent spending plan in place for fiscal 2019, a status that House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday called “disappointing” and House Minority Leader Brad Jones on Thursday described as “unbelievable.”
“We are working around the clock. We are working really hard. We’ve been meeting now with House Ways and Means and I believe and I am very hopeful that we will be able to resolve the issues on the budget very soon,” Spilka told the News Service on her way back to her office after voting on automatic voter registration legislation.
“We are getting closer and closer, I think, by the hour, yeah. So I’m optimistic,” Spilka said.
This week started with DeLeo floating the idea of separating policy proposals from the line-item spending in the budget in order to strike a budget deal. That fueled speculation that a controversial Senate budget amendment concerning local police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be the issue standing between lawmakers and budget deal.
Spilka declined to say whether immigration had been a roadblock or if the Senate and House had reached an agreement over the issue, but did say, “There’s not any specific policy that’s holding this up. That’s as much as I can say.”
Despite the budget being late, government in Massachusetts has not yet been at risk of a shutdown due to a $5 billion interim budget enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker that includes enough funding to keep operations running through July.
Jones, the House Republican leader, repeatedly told the News Service that he was “frustrated” by the status of the budget and the lack of transparency for Republicans who, technically, are part of the negotiating process.
“It’s July 12. We don’t have a state budget. We don’t have a clear indication of when we will, and it’s frustrating and there’s not a lot in the way of information what the specific issues are that are unresolved,” Jones told the News Service.
Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking minority party member of the Ways and Means Committee, is one of six conferees on the committee working to resolve the budget, but Jones said he doesn’t think Smola even has a clear idea of what is holding up a compromise. “I think he’s shared with me all the information he’s been privy to, but I don’t know that he’s necessarily had much information shared with him,” Jones said.
While Gov. Baker has not yet filed another budget extension to prepare for the possibility of talks extending beyond July 31, Jones said he would not stand in the way of another temporary budget in an effort to put the pressure on Democrats.
“I’m certainly not going to be the one to say we should shut down government, with local aid and workers not getting paid and things like that, but it’s frustrating. We have essentially, from a legislative perspective, one-party government,” he said.
Spilka did not want to speculate what might happen if a budget deal falls apart and no long-term spending plan is in place by July 31.
“We’re here. We’re working around the clock. We will continue to work around the clock to get our work completed,” she said.
In the absence of a deal, Spilka’s House counterpart, Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, also emphasized the work that he said he occurring.
“We’re working on it. We’re working at it,” Sanchez said. “We’re starting off at seven in the morning and right now the middle of the day feels like six in the evening and we have all these other things at the same time. We’re working. We’re working at it and I’m optimistic with my counterpart. At the end of the day, all of us agree that this has to get done before July 31. It has to.”
Asked if Senate would be open to keeping members in session beyond July 31 to deal with any of the other non-budgetary legislation piling up at the end of the session, Spilka said, “We need to do our job and get our work done. I don’t know what will be remaining at that point. Hopefully nothing. That’s all speculative. Right now that’s not what we’re discussing. It’s not on the table.”
Conference committees are actively trying to strike House-Senate agreements on bills dealing with short-term rental regulation and taxation, consumer data and credit privacy protections, civics education, veterans benefits, and health care legislation.
While no deals have been filed, one conferee, Sen. Ryan Fattman, said the panels he serves on working on the short-term rental and data privacy bills seem to have “wrapped up.” The chief House conferee on the short-term rentals bill, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, said, “We’re not done. It’s inaccurate. It’s not done, and it’s not done until it’s done. And right now we’re not done.”
[Michael P. Norton and Katie Lannan contributed reporting]