Unions prod lawmakers to override Baker veto

TIM JEAN/file photoGov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker has wielded his veto pen every year since taking office in 2015, in part, to fulfill his campaign pledges to reduce government spending and weed earmarks from the state budget.

But recently, in an unprecedented move, the second-term Republican governor signed a $43.3 billion budget bloated with tens of millions of dollars worth of earmarks — without vetoing any spending measures.

Lawmakers padded the budget with funding for pet projects and programs in their districts during protracted deliberations, which helped drive up the cost of the final spending plan by $600 million.

Baker said he didn't need to exercise his veto powers to trim spending, as he has done in the previous four years, because the state government is in "pretty good shape financially."

"There are no money vetoes in here," he said. "Basically, we came to the conclusion that this budget is balanced now."

His decision was welcomed by lawmakers, but panned by conservative watchdogs who accused the governor of abandoning his campaign pledges of fiscal restraint and responsibility.

"It’s a failure in our democratic process when the branch of government charged with reigning in spending does not exercise its duty to use the line item veto," said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative watchdog group. "It's sends a signal to the Legislature that it's okay to spend as much as they want."

Craney noted that every Massachusetts governor in recent history — both Republican and Democrat — has used executive veto powers to reduce budgetary spending.

To be sure, Baker has vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earmarks and other spending proposals added to previous budgets, but lawmakers have overridden him to restore the funding.

Chip Ford, executive director of the Citizens for Limited Taxation, said Baker should have exercised his veto powers to trim some of the spending — even if only to send a message to lawmakers.

"He's a Republican governor, who's supposed to be fiscally conservative, and you mean to tell me he couldn't find any wasteful spending in a $43 billion budget?" he said. "Something is wrong here."

Earmarks were virtually eliminated during the recession to plug budget shortfalls.

But as the state's economy improves, they've made a comeback.

House lawmakers loaded their version of the budget with 1,400 amendments ahead of deliberations in April.

In the upper chamber, senators filed nearly 1,200 budget amendments.

Baker vetoed $49 million from the $41.7 billion budget he signed a year ago, weeding out about 300 earmarks. Lawmakers, however, restored most of those cuts.

Lawmakers say the requests are important to their home districts — as well as the state's economy.

They point out that adding earmarks to the budget is often the only way to get money for local projects and initiatives, because the executive branch largely controls capital expenses.

"These aren't wasteful pork projects," said state Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, who secured several local earmarks, including $40,000 for a new bathroom facility on Plum Island. "They are very much needed in our communities."

Lawmakers said better-than-expected tax collections – roughly $1.9 billion through the end of last year – freed more money to fund local projects without impacting state finances.

Baker was also under pressure to sign off on the spending package, which lawmakers delivered to his administration on July 22 — three weeks after the start of the state's new fiscal year.

Massachusetts was the last in the nation with a July 1 fiscal year to deliver a budget to the governor's desk — for the second year in a row.

But Craney points out that using the budget as a vehicle to approve earmarks circumvents the checks and balances normally required for government-funded programs.

Earmarks are not subject to the state's competitive bidding law or other fiscal requirements, he notes, and decisions about adding them to the budget are made in closed-door meetings.

"It's horse trading," Craney said. "If a lawmaker feels strongly that their district needs something, (it) should be put in a bill and debated on the floor of the House and Senate."



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