IT WAS AN inauspicious start to the effort to reckon with the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on state revenue and the implications for the current fiscal year as well as the 2021 budget.
A virtual economic roundtable scheduled by state budget writers for Tuesday morning was delayed by a week after the Legislature could not get its livestream to work. It will now be held at 10 a.m. next Tuesday, April 14.
The roundtable was organized by House and Senate Ways and Means chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan as a way to hear testimony from the state’s top economists. The lawmakers are considering both how to craft next year’s budget and how to deal with the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on the current fiscal year.
Those who planned to testify included Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Boston Federal Reserve president Eric Rosengren, two university professors, representatives of multiple think tanks, and representatives of two rating agencies.
The event was supposed to be held at the State House at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. But because of the coronavirus outbreak, no members of the public were allowed in the room. Instead, it was going to be livestreamed on the legislative website. But the livestream did not work.
Just before 10:40 a.m., the event was postponed. In a tweet, Michlewitz apologized for the technical difficulties and wrote, “We will shoot for next week.”
Rodrigues said in a statement that the event was being pushed off “due to some unexpected technical issues with the live streaming interface on the Massachusetts legislature website.” He said it would be postponed for a week “to ensure that the interface is fixed and that we are able to broadcast a live feed for the general public and everyone interested to tune in and listen to this important testimony.”
The House typically releases its version of the state budget in April, but House leaders have said that is unlikely given the impact of coronavirus, which has both devastated state revenues and diverted the Legislature’s attention.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday said he is having an “ongoing conversation” with the Legislature about the budget. Baker said he understands comments made by House Speaker Robert DeLeo that the House may not have a budget out this month. “I’m very sympathetic to that given the difficulty in predicting this year and next year,” Baker said. “We’re all scratching our heads about what the last three months of this year are going to look like and the beginning of next year.”
Pandemic guts Lottery revenue for local aid
Massachusetts Lottery sales have dropped nearly 36 percent since the beginning of March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially costing cities and towns hundreds of millions of dollars in local aid even as the state looks at a possible $3 billion budget hole as a result of the near-shutdown of the economy.
According to Lottery officials, sales of all games for the week of March 29 through April 4 came in at $71.6 million, a drop of 35.9 percent from the first week of March when sales hit $111.6 million. The biggest decline was in the sale of Keno tickets, which plunged nearly 58 percent from the beginning of March due mainly to the closing of bars and restaurants, where the game is popular. Instant ticket sales dropped 32 percent over the month while the Numbers Game fell by 18 percent. Instant tickets sales for the week of March 22 to 28 were the lowest in the last 15 years.
The most recent data showed Lottery sales and net profits were already sluggish even before the pandemic hit. Through the end of February, estimated net profits, which go to cities and towns, were down about $38.7 million compared to the same period in 2019, A record $1.1 billion from the Lottery was distributed in local aid in 2019.
State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and Lottery officials have been pushing the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker for years to allow the agency to start online sales, an effort that may be helped by the decrease in revenue.
“As an in-store cash-only business, with a stay-at-home advisory currently in place and many of our retail partners being closed, we anticipate that these figures will continue to be drastically lower than usual,” Michael Sweeney, the Lottery’s executive director, said in a statement.
For gig workers, wait continues for unemployment pay
Self-employed workers who are anxiously awaiting the green light to apply for unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act will have to wait a little longer.
Gov. Charlie Baker said today that the state is still waiting for further “guidance” from the federal government before launching the state program that will extend benefits to workers who are not part of the traditional unemployment insurance system.
The $2.2 trillion emergency federal measure opened up unemployment pay to self-employed workers and those in the “gig economy” like Uber drivers and Instacart shoppers, who are classified by those companies as independent contractors. Figuring out how to account for them in the state unemployment system will be a challenging undertaking, but Baker suggested his administration has been working to have a system close to ready once the final federal guidance arrives.
“We’ve spent a bunch of time trying to figure out how we would actually get money out the door given the difficulty associated with a population that, as we’ve talked about here, doesn’t actually have a footprint within the existing UI system,” he said. “And I think we’ve come up with some ways that we can do that, but they need to be done in conjunction with and in compliance with whatever we get from the feds.”
He has urged self-employed residents not to try to sign up for benefits yet on the state unemployment insurance website because they’ll not be able to register there.
For those within the standard unemployment insurance system who have applied for benefits, Baker said checks should be going out within a week and will include the additional $600 per week included in the CARES Act approved by Congress.