When Governor Deval Patrick declared emergency cuts of $1 million to his office budget last fall, legislative leaders went one better and said they would slash the Legislature’s budget by $9.1 million. Early this month, they announced another $1.6 million in cuts.
But the Legislature has not reduced actual spending by anywhere near that amount, because when it comes to managing their budget, lawmakers have their own set of rules. The reductions will largely come out of a little-publicized reserve fund of almost $32 million that the Legislature maintains exclusively for its own use, the product of surpluses in legislative accounts accumulated in recent years.
So while the Legislature’s cuts were played up in press releases as a sacrifice, the lawmakers’ $60 million appropriation for operating expenses has merely been nicked.
In the arcana of budget writing, the Legislature’s reserves are known as “prior appropriations continued,” the equivalent of a rainy day fund. During a fiscal downturn in the 1980s, critics called them slush funds, but they remain a perquisite guarded by a succession of House speakers and Senate presidents. They are never explained in public budget documents or deliberations.