GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 5, 2013

State's free cash fund jumps to $1.6 billion

From Wire and
Staff Reports

---- — BOSTON — Addressing a year-end surplus totaling nearly $540 million and spending accounts that are running in the red, Gov. Deval Patrick has filed a bill to close the books on fiscal 2013 by depositing $501 million into the state’s reserve account and proposing $41.1 million in spending.

The deposit into the state’s “rainy day” account – mostly required by law — brings the savings account balance to over $1.6 billion, a figure that leaves Massachusetts with the third largest stabilization fund in the country.

It also comes at a time, however, when the governor has declined to release half the money set aside for local street, sidewalk and other transportation projects — including more than $500,000 due to Gloucester and nearly $850,000 in all still due the communities of Cape Ann. And it comes as Gloucester and Cape Ann’s other communities are awaiting final figures for diminished amounts of state aid.

In the bill, the governor asked the Legislature to approve $2.5 million in “unavoidable costs” incurred by public defenders over the last year, and to reimburse public college campuses $2.6 million for tuition and fee waivers granted to National Guard members.

Patrick also proposed $36 million in new spending to address costs he says are required in fiscal 2014, but unaccounted for in the new budget. The 2013 fiscal year closed June 30; the new fiscal year, with lawmakers and the governor’s office still wrangling over transportation revenues and new taxes that took effect last week, began July 1 and runs through next June 30.

“Thanks to sound management and wise spending, we are closing out the last fiscal year strong,” Patrick said in a statement. “In order to keep the Commonwealth’s momentum, this supplemental budget proposes a few investments in proven job growth strategies to keep Massachusetts economically competitive.”

Though Patrick urged “prompt and favorable consideration” of the bill, lawmakers do not appear poised to return for formal sessions soon, meaning the bill can either be considered during lightly attended informal sessions, when an objection from any member can stall any bill, or when formal sessions resume in the late summer or fall.

The new spending requests made by Patrick include $20 million for emergency assistance services for homeless families, $14.2 million for salary raises for direct care workers included in the fiscal 2013 budget, $1.3 million for the Department of Public Health to add five new sites to the monitoring program for Eastern Equine Encephalitis and aerial mosquito spraying, and $540,000 for the education department’s English Language learner program.

Patrick also proposed increasing the investment in the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which just hired former Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray’s chief of staff Katie Joyce, to $25 million from the net surplus. The center received $15 million in the fiscal 2013 budget and received $19.5 million in the fiscal 2014 budget signed this month.

The deposit in the state’s stabilization accounts follows law that requires one-time tax settlements and capital gains tax collections in excess of $1 billion to be transferred to the reserve account as a mechanism for replenishing the fund when economic times are better.

The new balance in the “rainy day account” is $49 million shy of where the account started a year ago.

Though the administration touted the surplus as a positive, Republican lawmakers have recently highlighted the windfall as reason to oppose the $500 million tax increase that took effect this week after it was pushed onto the books by the Legislature over Patrick’s objection that it was insufficient to fully fund transportation needs.

Patrick also proposed in the supplemental budget filing to carry-forward up to $40.6 million in unspent funds from fiscal 2013 into the new fiscal year for “one-time projects” or additional exposures that could crop up over the course of the next 11 months.

The administration says the bill also proposes “technical changes” to laws, including adjustments to the local-option process for cities and towns to fund their retiree health care liabilities. House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said last month the House anticipated addressing non-pension retiree benefit reform in the fall.