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Two cheers for Massachusetts for almost passing budget on time

FOR just short of 58 hours early this month, Massachusetts government was broke -- and almost nobody on Beacon Hill seemed to care. State lawmakers were too busy slapping themselves on the back for having agreed on a state budget for fiscal 1986 before the July 1 start of that 12-month spending cycle. After all, it was only the third time in a decade that the Senate and House completed the next annual budget package before the year began.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, if concerned over the budget's failure to reach his desk until late June 29, was not about to whisper a complaint, lest he offend some legislators.

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It's not surprising that it took the governor and his fiscal aides until July 3 to sift through the 1,500-item, $8.81 billion spending document. Indeed, they might have spent a lot more time on the project, had they had the luxury. But further delay might have resulted in checks being sent out late to some state workers, pensioners, and welfare recipients.

While legislative leaders may consider it quite a feat to have delivered a budget to the governor ahead of the start of the new fiscal year, they should have wrapped up their work by mid-June.

If for some reason that isn't possible, there is no reason that noncontroversial portions of the package could not be approved early, in some type of an advance minibudget. This almost surely should include continued level funding for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and public-employee retirement benefits.

It is unconscionable, even cruel, to keep the poor or elderly wondering when they will be getting their next check from the commonwealth.

This is not to suggest that any cost-of-living increases should be included in such funding. But if disagreement among lawmakers stalled action on such spending, the money involved, if finally approved, could come later.

Naysayers of such an idea may be more concerned with protecting the status quo. The threat of delayed payments to the elderly and needy families is all-too-frequently used as a political lever to win legislative approval of questionable appropriations.

Ordinarily the state budget gains passage by the end of July, and the problem of people not getting paid is avoided through adoption of a one-month spending program, under which each agency is allowed 1/12th of what they had in the previous fiscal year. But that arrangement is not the answer to protecting the peace of mind of benefits recipients.

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The fiscal 1976 state budget was not in place until well into November 1975, nearly five months through the spending year. Massachusetts government operations had to be kept going through a series of one-month or two-month budgets -- something no state lawmaker would want to repeat.

The problem then was that the Bay State did not have the money needed to carry it through the fiscal year without approval of substantial tax increases, which was finally achieved.

This time, much of the delay in budget approval stemmed from House and Senate disagreement on how to spend a projected nearly $300 million revenue surplus.

The fact remains, however, that the fiscal '86 budget is 11.4 percent bigger than last year's. The $8.81 billion spending package signed by the governor is also about $130 million above the hardly austere budget proposal Governor Dukakis submitted to the Legislature in January.

While Dukakis did make modest reductions in a couple of items, they totaled only about $545,000. That's not likely to win the governor a place in the Government Frugality Hall of Fame.

In the interest of sound fiscal planning, state legislative leaders, including the heads of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees, should draft real deadlines for budget approval that would give the governor at least a week to review the spending package.

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