Baker orders state budget cuts; Democratic leader objects

Markets Associated Press

Gov. Charlie Baker ordered spending cuts Tuesday to close a nagging shortfall in the state's nearly $40 billion budget.

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In a letter to the Democratic-controlled Legislature, the Republican said he would use his administrative powers to reduce discretionary spending in the executive branch of state government by a net of nearly $100 million for the remainder of the state's fiscal year, which runs through June 30.

Baker said he decided on the cuts after consulting with his cabinet and other top officials.

The governor's action drew a swift rebuke from Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who called the budget cuts "premature."

The administration blames the budget shortfall on a combination of lower than expected revenues from taxes and fees, unforeseen spending obligations for Medicaid and other non-discretionary accounts, and the Legislature's decision this past summer to override more than $230 million in budget vetoes by the governor.

"Today, we are acting to put the budget back in balance for the hardworking people of Massachusetts," said Kristen Lepore, Baker's Secretary of Administration and Finance.

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The cuts do not need legislative approval. They include $7.6 million from the state's travel and tourism office, $6.5 million from the state police and $5.3 million from state parks and recreation.

In October, the administration identified a $294 million budget shortfall but did not immediately order spending cuts, instead taking several other steps that included buyout offers for state workers nearing retirement. It has not yet been disclosed how many employees accepted the buyout.

State tax revenues came in $152 million below benchmarks in November, partly due to a change in the state's tax processing system that pushed more than $50 million in tax collections into December. For the year, the state is running about $20 million below projections.

DeLeo, in a statement, said the governor appeared to be using the unilateral budget cuts to "achieve policy objectives that have previously been rejected by the Legislature."

While the sluggish revenue numbers demand vigilance, the speaker said, they do not warrant the budget cuts at this time.

Sen. Karen Spilka, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the reductions ordered by the governor will also hurt programs that address homelessness and the opioid addiction scourge.

"The governor is shifting important funding away from the priorities of the Legislature in favor of his own," said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat. "These cuts will have real consequences on all the communities of the Commonwealth struggling with opioid addiction and housing and should not be made at this time."

The cuts were announced one day after legislators began the process of assembling next year's state budget by hearing from economists who urged continued fiscal restraint in light of uncertainty over the global economy and the policies of President-elect Donald Trump.

Baker opposes tax increases. DeLeo said Monday he considers new taxes a last resort but would not rule them out.