BOSTON — The drawn-out wrangling over details of a nearly $43 billion spending plan earned Massachusetts a new distinction on Thursday: It became the only state that starts its fiscal year in July and still doesn't have a formal budget.
A six-member legislative committee negotiating a final budget hasn't reached agreement on controversial policy issues and other sticking points, 18 days after fiscal 2020 began.
The state became the last in the nation without an approved operating budget when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed his state's two-year, $69 billion spending package.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he remains hopeful that Democratic lawmakers can "iron out whatever the differences are" on a final spending package. The legislative committee has been working behind closed doors.
"There are a lot of people who rely on the certainty of putting this to bed," Baker said Thursday. "Hopefully they can wrap this up soon, so we can close the books on fiscal 2019."
Baker said the budget delay is detracting from work on other major pieces of legislation, such as a proposed hands-free cellphone bill, which is also being hammered out by a committee.
"When the budget gets hung up like this, it takes a lot of attention away from other stuff," he said.
The state government is running on a $5 billion, stop-gap budget signed by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on June 28, which was expected to provide funding for about one month.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, suggested to reporters on Monday that another supplemental budget might be needed to carry the state through August.
"They should be ashamed of themselves for letting it go this long," said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a Boston-based conservative think tank. "They're among the highest paid lawmakers in the nation, and passing a budget on time is one of the main responsibilities of the job."
Like most states, Massachusetts is required to have a budget, even if temporary, to keep the government running. There are no penalties for approving it late.
Last week, Moody’s Investor Services, a credit rating agency, criticized Massachusetts and six other states with late budgets, saying the delays "reflect governance weakness."
Exactly what's holding up the budget isn't clear, as the lawmakers deliberating on the spending package have closed their proceedings to the press and public.
One possible sticking point is Baker's proposal to rein in the growth of prescription drug spending by MassHealth, which serves 1.9 million low- and moderate-income people.
Baker has pitched a plan to allow the state to publicly post the "value" of a drug if it is found to be unreasonably priced and if there is no agreement on rebates with the manufacturer. The plan would require drug makers to participate in public hearings and report prices to state agencies. Those who don't cooperate could be sued by the attorney general's office.
Both the House and Senate included parts of Baker's MassHealth plan in their budgets, but the House left out some of the tougher provisions, including referrals to the attorney general.
Another possible holdup is disagreement over Baker’s plan to tax opioid manufacturers to help pay for substance abuse treatment. He wants a 15% tax on the overall sales of opioid makers, such as Purdue Pharma. The tax, expected to raise $14 million a year, would help pay for more beds in treatment centers, recovery and prevention programs.
The Senate voted to include Baker's proposal in its version of the budget, but the House didn't.
The House and Senate spending plans also differ on school funding, nursing home aid and a tuition freeze at the University of Massachusetts.
Once lawmakers agree on a final budget, the House and Senate will hold up or down votes, with no amendments allowed. The package then goes to Baker, who has 10 days to review it.
Democrats have large enough majorities in both chambers to override any of Baker's vetoes on policy or spending items, as they have in several previous budget cycles.
Last year, lawmakers sent Baker a state budget more than a month after the beginning of the fiscal year.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.