Will We Ever Have a State Budget?

Massachusetts still doesn't have a state budget. Neither does Wisconsin. So maybe it has something to do with cranberries.

I doubt that, although Wisconsin and Massachusetts rank first and second in cranberry production. And, putting together a budget is like making cranberry sauce. Just put everything in a pot, turn up the heat, and wait for it to congeal.

You usually do it once a year because no one wants to eat cranberry sauce in May or August. And no one can stand to put together a state budget more than once a year either. Or, at the rate we're going on Beacon Hill, maybe once a year is too often and we should go for two years at a time.

What seems to be the problem, you ask, your dark eyes flashing, as if you've been living in a cave and don't know what's going on. Because if you haven't been in a cave and you read or hear any news you know that our $19-billion or $21-billion budget isn't ready, as it should have been so we could start spending your tax dollars last July 1. Because the State Budget, the Fiscal Year, FY for you initial lovers, runs July through June, 1999-2000 in the current case.

Now, I don't know what's going on in Wisconsin, and can only guess at the ramifications of having, or not having, a spending plan completed in Beantown. Which has nothing to do with cranberries. Or, beans, come to think about it, because Wisconsin's Bush beans, that's a brand, now sells more beans than our traditional B&M. Which stands for Boston and Maine. And it's too bad we don't cook our own baked beans any more. Even for church suppers. And what ever happened to Jello?

But, about this budget. "The Toms" are fighting. And I'm not talking Tom as in the Tomcat prowling my neighborhood that comes and sprays my house right through the sliding glass doors. If I could catch that cat....well, where's Jane the Dogcop when I need her. And, does she do cats, too?

The Toms are Finneran, as in House Speaker, and Birmingham, as in Senate President. And they've been meeting daily, so they say, and the Boston Globe usually confirms it, to duke out the differences. Because the House is, frankly, determined to sock away the cigaret windfall, which we probably won't get in this FY (aren't you glad you know what that means now) anyway, for a rainy day. We also have the teacher retirement bill included, while the Senate adds more money for schools. But, the details are unimportant. Suffice it to say that the Conference Committee of three Senators and three Representatives have handed the responsibility of coming to some agreement to the leaders.

Some of us voted at a recent House session to include in this year's budget all of the nondisputed items, the amounts and line items that both House and Senate agree on. Well, that didn't work. And then we got to squabbling about a bailout for Quincy Hospital. And that fell apart. In fact, most of our legislation has fallen apart this year, unless it's naming an offramp on a highway for someone, which actually happened last week.

So, you ask, are state employees getting paid? Is the state paying the bills? Yes. Each month, for four months now, we've approved a one-twelfth budget. That means each line item or department that was in the budget last year is getting one-twelfth of what they got last year, month by month. Cities and towns have their lottery, school and local funding numbers in hand so they can set tax rates. The amounts won't got down, and they could increase.

it's new programs, and there are some great new ones in the works, that aren't being funded. Generally social service areas, because, again, there is a different philosophy between The Toms, Finneran being more conservative fiscally and Birmingham wanting to provide more money for more programs. In the fray, the Administration's Secretary of Administration and Finance, who keeps a good tally of spending, publicly, says not having a budget is not a bad thing, necessarily, because a lot of the money won't get spent.

New budget items are not retroactive, for the most part. So if a new program eventually is funded for an annual expenditure of $12-million, it will only get $1-million for each of the months remaining when the budget is approved.

When will the budget be approved? No bets here. Most say this month, for the rest of the FY. Others claim the House and Senate will delay it until it is too late for the Legislature to override any vetoes.

In the past, late budgets have been primarily due to a lack of money. This year there's a budget surplus. And that means another debate--should we spend the surplus? save it for an economic downturn? or cut taxes? pay off debt?

But there's a big problem with a late budget, no matter how we handle the surplus, no matter how much or how little we spend, no matter when we finally complete the budget and get it to the Governor's desk for approval, and when we vote to sustain or override his vetoes.

And that is simply this. We in the Legislature look pretty stupid. Your confidence in government, your belief that we can get the job done, is eroded.

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