BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker had the weekend to sit with the state budget he fears could be at least a half a billion dollars out of balance, but said Monday his team is still “digging” through the numbers to identify the size of the problem.
Baker said “administrative actions” would represent a “big part” of his budget solutions, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said they doubt a battle could be brewing with the new governor over taxes in the weeks to come.
“We’re still digging our way through it, but I said over the weekend I thought the big wildcard in some of this is the projection around Medicaid both for this fiscal year and next fiscal year and I think that continues to be the case,” Baker said after meeting for over an hour in his office with Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
>>> For video of the press conference, click here.
The meeting among members of Beacon Hill’s new power trio was the first of what Baker said would be weekly meetings of the executive and legislative leaders. Over lunch, the three men and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito discussed future revenue projections, the budget for fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2016, the Olympics and the weather.
“I think we’re able to agree on a number of issues in terms of moving forward. I think we had a very open and frank discussion and I thought we got off to a superb start,” DeLeo told reporters.
Rosenberg, who was elected president last Wednesday, but participated in similar meetings with Gov. William Weld in the 1990s when he chaired the Senate budget committee, described it as “100 times better” than any meeting with Weld.
“It was totally engaging. We were very deeply involved in discussion of issues. I love Governor Weld, but they were much more social events than they were substantive and Mr. Baker is very substantive and we spent the entire time digging deep in the weeds of policy,” Rosenberg said.
Weld may not disagree with Rosenberg’s assessment, but the social nature, rather than policy focus, of those meetings might have been deliberate.
Weld last week on the radio looked back on his meetings with House and Senate leaders as the “golden age of my cooperation” with Democrats, suggesting the point of the sit-downs was that it would be harder to double-cross someone if they knew they would have to meet face-to-face each week.
“They were really social meetings. They weren’t policy meetings,” Weld said.
While identifying the size of the projected budget gap for fiscal 2015 and developing a solution has emerged as the first and top priority for the new Baker administration, all three men seemed in agreement that local aid, in all its forms, should be protected.
“From my point of view, all options are on the table. The thing that we do not want to do ever, if we can avoid it, is to cut local aid of any sort and revenues are always the last option,” Rosenberg said.
Asked who would win if it became a battle over raising new revenues to fill the budget hole, Rosenberg said, “I don’t think this problem is deep enough that we should have to go to that question, but in fairness we have to say, and from my point of view, everything has to be on the table when you’re trying to solve a fiscal problem.”
DeLeo agreed, suggesting it’s premature to discuss solutions before identifying the size of the deficit.
“Let’s just wait awhile before we decide anything is a battle. I’m not so sure eventually it’s going to turn out to be any type of battle at all,” DeLeo said.
Baker said he would have more information to share in a couple of days. Governors have the power to unilaterally cut many spending accounts, but need legislative approval to cut others to implement certain reforms aimed at scaling back state spending.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick made nearly $200 million in emergency budget cuts before leaving office, but the Legislature did not act on a bill he filed to close the remainder of the $329 million gap identified by Patrick with a blend of local aid cuts and reductions to non-executive branch agencies.
Baker on Friday announced a hiring freeze and review of all contracts across state government, estimating the move could save $6.5 million. “We started with the hiring freeze and the contract review because we didn’t want to make the problem any worse than it already was,” Baker said.
Earlier in the day, Baker met in his office with Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust. Faust would not speak with reporters about her conversation with Baker as she left the office, but Baker later said the two discussed research, online learning and college affordability.
The governor and Faust did not discuss the city of Boston’s Olympic bid, which is expected to rely heavily on existing sports facilities on the region’s university campuses.
Baker said he would expect infrastructure projects already in the pipeline to move forward as planned in connection with an Olympic bid, but did not comment further on the prospect of public funds being utilized to host the 2024 summer games.
“I think all of us would say there’s a lot to learn about the nature of the bid,” Baker said.