Lawmakers quickly passed a $16.5 billion interim budget on Tuesday that keeps the government funded through Oct. 31 but leaves lingering questions over the state’s fiscal health amid “extreme uncertainty” in the coronavirus era.
“We need greater clarity on potential federal action on state and local government aid, the economy reopening strategy and trends of the virus,” Sen. Michael Rodrigues said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “If we attempted to pass a full-year budget without this information, we would have to make painful decisions without knowing the full extent of our resources or the crisis.”
Lawmakers sketched out the spending plan Tuesday, passing and sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker for approval within hours. It was a rare rapid move for legislators who have often lately found themselves embroiled in debate over complicated, amendment-laden bills as the two-year legislative session draws to a close.
The placeholder bill allows lawmakers to further push off spending decisions amid dire predictions on expected tax revenues during the current fiscal year that began July 1. Budget watchdogs have put the deficit at $6 billion less than pre-pandemic estimates.
“The pandemic has created extreme uncertainty around public health and the economy,” Rodrigues said.
The interim budget builds on the one-month plan agreed on by the Legislature and Baker in June to keep the state running through July. It keeps spending at levels on par with last year’s levels for now.
The Legislature and Baker agreed on a one-month budget in June to keep state services funded through July, and Baker filed another $5.15 billion budget bill last week to cover spending through August.
So far the federal government has provided some aid for coronavirus expenses, but states are holding out for more. In a joint statement on Tuesday, state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Rodrigues said the three-month interim budget “will provide near-term fiscal stability.”
Lawmakers will take up a full-year spending plan “once better information is available,” according to the statement from the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
“We are committed to finalizing a full-year budget that is fiscally responsible and responsive to the needs of our state, but key to developing that budget is further clarity around potential federal action, our economic recovery and continued trajectory of COVID-19,” the legislators said.
Lawmakers have provided no exact timeline for when they will take up a full-year spending bill, but they will likely have to return for a special session to deal with the budget.