Lawmakers and advocates have had the better part of a week to pour over Gov. Charlie Baker's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. Baker's plan is a doozy, packet with policy initiatives large and small and calling for increases to some taxes to help cover efforts to better finance schools and prepare for climate change.
Most of your money still pays for health care
The biggest items of the $42.7 billion budget are the same as always: health care dominates state spending, with education in a close second place and everything else trailing behind. The plan will raise spending by around 1.5 percent, well within the bounds of revenue that's expected to come into state coffers this year. Nearly $300 million dollar will go into the state's "rainy day" stabilization fund to bulk up savings before the next recession hits.
MassHealth, the health insurance program for the poor, is far and away the biggest line-item, roughly 40 percent of the entire budget. The next biggest bucket is the $9 billion, about 20 percent, for education. The remaining fifth of spending goes to things like environmental and recreation costs, human services programs, economic development, public safety and local aid back to the cities and towns.
Baker wants to raise (some) taxes
There is a big change in this year's budget from Baker in that it raises taxes, something Baker pledged not to do when first running for election. The plan would plump up the tax on real estate transactions by 50 percent, providing $137 million per year for a fund that pays for climate change preparations.
There's also new revenue set to come into state coffers from taxes on opioid medications and e-cigarettes, as well as expected funds from new casinos and marijuana shops.
(Some) conservatives don't like higher taxes
Conservatives are often hard to find on Beacon Hill, but there are still some who look out for taxpayers when it comes to spikes in taxation and spending. Leading GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate didn't have much of anything to say about Baker's plan beyond calling it a fiscally responsible first step before the Legislature has it's own budget process.
The elected Republican reaction was muted compared to the outrage expressed by conservative groups. In a statement made shortly after Baker unveiled his budget, Citizens for Limited Taxation executive director Chip Ford called the governor's plans "Baker's next assault on taxpayers."
"Gov. Baker has an excuse for every betrayal. He's smooth, he’s slippery, and he’s sliding down the slope, seemingly a victim of Stockholm syndrome," Ford wrote. "For a candidate who campaigned on opposition to raising taxes and fees, Gov. Baker has become — well, a disappointment."
Likewise, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance reacted to Baker's tax hikes by calling for a moratorium on all tax increases until the costs of programs like MassHealth can be lowered.
Education will dominate this year
Perhaps the most significant part of Baker's budget is his proposal to increase school funding by $1.1 billion over seven years, his attempt at addressing the cries from local and educational leaders that state funding for schools are not keeping up with costs. This is Baker's initial salvo into the debate that is likely to dominate Beacon Hill for the better part of 2019.
Democrats have the advantage on the "Cap on Kids"
Another major shift in Baker's budget is the elimination of the so-called "cap on kids," the 1990's-era policy meant to disincentive having children while on welfare.
"It was based on this really foul assumption that people who were elected were going to teach women in poverty a lesson about having children," said Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge.)
Democrats moved to eliminate the cap last year, but were foiled by Baker when he vetoed the measure near the end of the legislative session, and then foiled by themselves when lawmakers "ran out of time" to override the veto and Baker simply killed the measure. Now, Baker wants to do away with the family welfare cap, but at the same time he's attempting to also limit some benefits that go to handicapped people he says are out of step with federal standards.
"What is just really truly a disgrace, and baffling that he's gotten away with it, is that we have a governor who has continued to try to figure out how to reduce benefits for the poorest amongst us while in the same breath saying he doesn't oppose the lifting of the cap. Well, he does oppose lifting the cap. He's done it twice," Decker said.
DeLeo supports removing the cap, meaning Democrats should be able to easily override any objection from Baker over a clean elimination of the limit, regardless of his attempts to tie the move to the handicap benefits.
There are still no Legislative budget writers
Next up in the annual budgeting process is the House. Speaker Robert DeLeo has to fill the two top slots on his Ways and Means Committee, appointments he's said he'll make in the coming weeks. After former chairman Jeffrey Sanchez was defeated in September and vice chairman Steve Kulik retired, there will be new blood in some of the House's most powerful positions.
After the House passes their budget in April, the Senate, which also lacks a permanent Ways and Means Chair, will ready theirs for May. A final budget is supposed to get back to Baker by the end of June, but recent years have seen that deadline blown in the name of politics and horse-trading.