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Opaque Massachusetts budget process hides state’s real priorities

In a preview this week of the Fiscal 2018 state budget, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center points out a key shortcoming in the budget process.

That process is not transparent, the nonpartisan think tank argues, because it doesn’t provide a needed context for the proposals and decisions that the governor and Legislature make.

As the Budget and Policy Center notes, that needed context lies in the release of a public “maintenance budget” that discloses the projected costs of continuing “current services” from one fiscal year to the next. Without that “maintenance budget” context, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the public to really know whether proposed funding levels are meeting real needs or falling short of them.

The problem can be clearly seen in the current-year funding of group homes operated by the Department of Developmental Services.

Last January, Governor Baker proposed a $3.7 million — or 1.7 percent — increase in the DDS state-operated group home line item. But while that sounds like more funding for those facilities, it was in actuality a cut when adjusted for inflation.  The inflation rate was 1.8 percent, according to the Policy Center’s numbers.

Moreover, the funding increase proposed by the governor for the state-operated group homes was reportedly about $500,000 less than what DDS wanted in order to maintain current services in the residences. That $500,000 figure, however, wasn’t readily available to the public. The figure was casually mentioned by DDS Commissioner Elin Howe during a conference call on the budget last year with advocates for the developmentally disabled.

At the same time, Howe didn’t intend to do anything about that actual shortfall in funding for the state-operated group homes.  As we noted last May, while Howe admitted the funding proposed by the governor for the group homes was inadequate, she also said DDS did not intend to seek an amendment in the House budget to increase that funding. Howe’s response to us was, “we’re just going to have to manage it.”

This is exactly why the maintenance budget disclosure is needed as part of the process. It would give the public a better insight into what the governor and Legislature actually intend with their budget proposals and deliberations.

It appears to us that the DDS mindset is that it is not worthwhile to push even for maintenance-level funding for the state-operated group homes and potentially other state-run programs. That’s because the Department’s ultimate priority or aim, as we see it, is to privatize these services.

Interestingly, the Budget and Policy Center also pointed out that certain other budgetary accounts were underfunded in the current fiscal year, including a human services account that helps fund corporate provider-run or privatized group homes in the DDS system. That account was underfunded by $14.7 million. However, the administration apparently plans to fully fund those accounts next year, the Center noted.

Partly as a result of the unfunded accounts and the use of a host of one-time revenues and temporary solutions to balance the current-year budget, the Policy Center is projecting a $616 million budget shortfall in Fiscal 2018.

The Policy Center’s preview suggested that one of the major reasons for the Legislature’s underfunding of the privatized group home and other accounts was the lack of a publicly available maintenance budget document. The Policy Center points out that 19 other states publish a maintenance budget document, but Massachusetts is not among them.

The Policy Center is also calling for the public release of a baseline tax revenue growth estimate. This sounds like a suggestion that the administration adjust its usual revenue projections to take into account any tax cuts or tax increases that have been enacted.  As the Policy Center noted,

The initial tax revenue growth estimates for FY 2017 were unusually optimistic, but there was no easy way to see that because of the way the estimates were presented.

We concur with the Budget and Policy Center’s recommendations, particularly on the need for disclosure of a maintenance budget. The more information the public has with which to assess the budgetary process, the better off we are, and this appears to be a key piece of missing information.

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