State budget tech fail

Sen. Michael Rodrigues (left), Rep. Aaron Michlewitz (right), and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg (on screen) waited while staff tried to fix a failed livestream of the "virtual roundtable" about COVID-19's impact on state revenues.

In an embarrassing setback as legislators work to understand the full economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, legislative leaders and the governor's top budget official were forced to postpone by a week a virtual roundtable discussion with top state economists due to a technological snafu.

The event, scheduled four weeks into the ongoing state of emergency, will now take place next Tuesday after the lawmakers, legislative aides and the information technology staff at the Statehouse were unable to successfully livestream the web conference on the Legislature's website.

"We're going to have to postpone this. I really, really apologize," Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues told the participants on the teleconference after giving IT staff nearly a half-hour to try to get the livestream working.

Rodrigues and House Ways and Means Chairman Michlewitz were in the same room together — the recently renovated fourth floor conference room of the State House — with a small number of staff.

As the meeting was set to begin at 10 a.m., the two legislators were seated a long table to enable social distancing in front of a screen where other participants, including Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, were connecting to the meeting remotely via the video conferencing tool Webex.

Rodrigues said the participants in the meeting had a good connection, but they could not get a livestream of the proceeding to broadcast online for the public and other lawmakers to watch.

"Obviously this is not ideal and we wanted to try to do something as quickly as possible, but that is the complications in today's world in terms of dealing with this and we wanted to make sure everyone had an opportunity to see this hearing and it's unfortunate we're not going to be able to do that today," Michlewitz said after the meeting had been rescheduled.

The hearing was supposed to be a jumping off point for legislative leaders, but particularly the House and Michlewitz, to get a fuller understanding of the ramifications that the shutdown of the economy in response to COVID-19 will have on state revenues and budget planning for next year, as well as effects this fiscal year.

In a typical year, the House would be releasing its version of Gov. Charlie Baker's $44.6 billion budget for fiscal 2021 within the next week, and debating it after the traditional April school vacation week.

"We could have held this but for it to not be broadcast live, for it to not be transparent, it's not worth it. We'd rather do it the right way," Michlewitz said.

Once it became clear that the technology was not going to work, officials weighed different options, including posting video of the discussion after it took place.

Rodrigues, however, said it was important for both the public and other legislators, including members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees, to be able to watch in real time in order to text questions they might have to the chairmen.

"I realize that our primary responsibility is to write a budget for FY21 and this was an important step today for us to get the information that we need to responsibly put a budget together, but we're going to continue," Rodrigues said.

The meeting was scheduled to be held in Room 428 at the State House, which has been fully renovated in recent years to include livestream-capable cameras. Not all participants were going to be in the same room, though, and the plan had been to livestream the video conference among all 13 participants.

In addition to Rodrigues, Michlewitz and Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan, the virtual roundtable was due to include the Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny, Beacon Hill Institute President David Tuerck, Mass Budget and Policy Center President Marie-Frances Rivera, UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Professor Michael Goodman, Northeastern University economist Alan Clayton-Matthews, Standard &  Poors chief U.S. economist Beth Ann Bovino, Evan Horowitz, the executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, and Moody's government consulting director Dan White.

The Legislature, which does not have remote voting capacity and has been meeting with only a skeleton crew present, has also not come up with a plan to post testimony submitted on bills, including a mounting pile of proposals calling for assistance and relief to the many people and businesses affected by COVID-19.

The technology failure drew attention at a time when online streams and forums have become commonplace.

"Grandma can get on Zoom. But Mass. lawmakers can’t get live stream to work," the Boston Globe tweeted with a link to its coverage of the snafu.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the News Service on Monday evening that he was "anxious" to hear what the economists had to say.

"I don't expect for a while to hear anything positive. There's no question that what we heard in December will be quite different from what we'll hear tomorrow. I won't say we'll go completely back to square one, but there will probably have to be some changes to the budget bill the House will be debating," DeLeo said.

On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said he was "very sympathetic" to the position the Legislature is in because of the difficulty involved with trying to predict the budgetary ramifications of an ongoing pandemic and the timeframe in which the budget is typically handled.

"We're in a pretty active and ongoing conversation with the Legislature about the budget, both for this year and next year," he said Monday. "And, honestly, part of the reason why it's an active conversation as opposed to a declaratory one is this is very hard to figure out."

In a report published last week, MTF looked at unemployment insurance filings and other data to consider how Massachusetts might fare in an eventual recovery. The group concluded that "there are several reasons to think Massachusetts will once again suffer a greater impact from the pandemic than the country as a whole, suggesting that the state's recovery would be steeper and longer than other parts of the country."

The governor pointed out that the true impact of the pandemic and the economic shutdowns put in place to try to slow its spread did not make itself known in state tax collection figures from March.

"March actually came in over benchmark," Baker said. "And we're all kind of scratching our heads about what the last three months of this year are going to look like and what the beginning of next year is gonna look like."

Collections for March totaled $2.66 billion, which is only $8 million less than what was collected in March 2019, and $83 million or 3.2% above the state's monthly benchmark. Through three quarters of the fiscal year, Massachusetts tax receipts have totaled $21.064 billion, which is $878 million or 4.3% more than the same year-to-date point in 2019, and $235 million or 1.1% above the year-to-date benchmark.

Another issue that could complicate the state's budget revision and writing efforts, the governor said, is whether there will be another federal stimulus bill and what that legislation might mean for state and local governments.

On that front, budget managers may have a better sense of things a week from now. But everyone will just have to wait at least one more week regardless.

"Such it is with technology sometimes. We're trying," Rodrigues said.

Sam Doran contributed reporting.

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