Earmark concerns hold up $80 mil spending bill

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 30, 2014…..Massachusetts House Republicans on Thursday blocked an $80 million, end-of-year spending bill, citing concerns that Democratic leadership on Beacon Hill had tucked in several spending earmarks that could be used as fodder in tight races with the election just five days away.

The House and Senate have for weeks been trading versions of the spending bill that is intended to close the books on fiscal 2014, which ended on July 1. In addition to replenishing accounts that have spent into deficits, including sheriffs’ offices, the budget bill would supply additional funding for programs like low-income home heating assistance, snow and ice removal and over 70 collective bargaining contracts.

The Senate, however, is insisting that several provisions remain in the bill, including a trust fund to allow $2 million in spending for restoration of the Mayflower II, and $3 million for the construction of a public safety building in the town of Barre, where Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer lives.

Brewer is not running for re-election, but Rep. Ann Gobi, a Democrat, is currently engaged in a tight battle against Republican Michael Valanzola to keep Brewer’s central Massachusetts seat in the Democrat column.

The Senate version of the bill also includes $7 million for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

“I think pretty much everybody knows next Tuesday is Election Day. I’m assuming that everyone in the building does, anyways. And I think doing things that potentially play out into the election scheme of things isn’t the way we should be doing things with a few days left,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones said.

After the Senate sent its latest version back to the House, Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican who is not seeking re-election, brought the lightly attended session to an end by doubting the presence of a quorum.

Neither branch meets with a quorum during informal sessions that run between August and December in election years and during which mostly non-controversial bills are considered. On Thursday lobbyists monitoring the action in both branches outnumbered lawmakers in attendance.

The rules laying out parts of the year for formal business and other months for informal sessions are designed to prevent lawmakers from making politically calculated policy and spending decisions just before elections or in lame-duck sessions after the election.

“The biggest issue for George and I is timing,” Jones said.

Both branches plan to meet again in rare Friday sessions to attempt to hammer out differences over the bill, pushing up against a deadline to appropriate all fiscal 2014 surplus funds before they revert to the General Fund.

The Executive Office of Administration and Finance said the comptroller must close out the ledgers for fiscal 2014 by midnight Friday.

“The governor told us it needs to be on his desk today, so tomorrow is the very latest. It can’t go beyond that,” said Senate President Therese Murray, who presided over the Senate on Thursday. Asked about House Republicans objecting to earmarks so close to the election, Murray said, “Some of them are theirs.”

Murray was referring to a $500,000 earmark in the Senate bill to study the replacement of the Main Street bridge and the Lawrence Street bridge in Norfolk, part of Republican Sen. Richard Ross’s district.

Ross, of Wrentham, is running for re-election against Democrat Dylan Hayre, a Natick Town Meeting member and chair of the Council on Aging who has been active with the Democratic State Committee.

The funding for the Mayflower II and the Barre public safety building do not require any additional spending, but direct the funds, which were earmarked in the fiscal 2015 budget, to be held in a trust fund so they can be spent beyond 2015 for projects expected to take several years to complete.

The bill would also authorize the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance to transfer ownership of the Transportation Building at 10 Park Plaza and the lease for operation of the parking garage and food court on the property to the Department of Transportation. The shift would give MassDOT control over a valuable parcel that, if ever sold, would supply revenue for transportation instead of the General Fund.

Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, represented his party at the Senate session. Asked if Senate Republicans share the concerns about the supplemental budget raised by their House colleagues, Hedlund said, “I do, but I’m only one member of my caucus.”

“It’s a moving picture and I think that there’s moving pieces to this,” Hedlund added. “And I think it depends on what the House does. And we’ll make a judgment after that.”

Pressed on whether he was okay with the Senate’s proposal that was sent to the House on Thursday, Hedlund said, “I was in the chamber and I let it go through, right? But I’m also one member of a caucus of four.”

If the bill does not get finished in time, the money that’s appropriated in the year-end budget bill will revert to the consolidated net surplus fund, delivering a combined $50 million to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the Community Preservation Act, based on a law governing how surpluses are to be spent. The remainder would revert to General Fund reserves.

The House last week sent the Senate its latest version of the bill (H 4514) and the Senate on Thursday sent back its new bill (S 2392). Bill texts are available at https://malegislature.gov/Bills/Search.

[Gintautas Dumcius contributed reporting]

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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