BOSTON — Lawmakers poured millions of dollars back into the state budget on Thursday, restoring scores of earmarks — including several for projects in the Merrimack Valley — that were cut from the spending package by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Baker, a Republican who took office in January, vetoed $162 million in spending from the $38.1 billion budget he signed two weeks ago, including nearly 500 legislative earmarks totaling $38 million.
The House and Senate restored much of that on Thursday. Funding was restored for a number of local projects, including $50,000 for a rail trail in Methuen, $400,000 for renovations to Nicholson Stadium in Methuen, $60,000 for a study on redeveloping the vacant Cogswell School in Haverhill, and $200,000 for a media center at Andover High School.
Baker had vetoed more than $5.1 million in earmarks from the tourism bill, arguing that many of the local projects were driving up tourism spending. He left about $4 million to cover projects and payroll in the state tourism office.
On Wednesday, both the House and Senate restored $17.5 million in funding for full-day kindergarten grants and $5.2 million for the University of Massachusetts' five-campus system. Baker had vetoed both items.
Overall, lawmakers have restored more than $97 million to the budget in the past two days.
Baker has warned lawmakers that their overrides could force his administration to make unilateral cuts to the budget in coming months. Those wouldn't be subject to a veto override by the Legislature.
The state faces a projected $1.8 billion shortfall for this budget year, which began July 1. Baker attributes that to a mix of rising Medicaid costs, an automatic reduction in the state’s personal income tax rate to 5.15 percent, and a sharp decline in fees and other non-tax revenues.
Critics of earmarks - including fiscal watchdog groups - have long argued that they encourage patronage and waste.
When it was announced that Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, inserted funding for the media center study in the Senate version of the budget, a number of local residents criticized the move, calling it "pork-barrel politics."
The critics also contended that Town Meeting had voted to reject spending $1.9 million to convert the library at Andover High School into a media center, saying the Town Meeting vote should be respected.
But L'Italien countered that the vote was extremely close and the funding for the study wouldn't force the school to do the project. L'Italien is a former member of the Andover School Committee.
She said she was glad that legislators restored funding the governor had vetoed.
"I want to thank my colleagues in the House and Senate for overriding the governor's veto of $200,000 in funding in the new state budget to study a proposed renovation of Andover High School’s antiquated library to transform it into a modern-day media center," she said. "Andover taxpayers deserve a little help from the state from time to time just like many other Massachusetts communities that typically get funding in the state budget."
The media study is aimed at pegging the cost of the project, which some town officials have said they want to see before backing the project.
"This will give residents an accurate and reliable picture of the scope and cost of the project so they can make an informed decision about whether this is something they want to do,” Sen. L’Italien said.
The Senate also on Thursday overrode the governor's veto of $35,000 for Andover to pay for improvements to the Peter Aumais baseball facility for boys and girls sports. The work includes renovating dugouts and electrical infrastructure, adding a press box and making handicapped accessibility upgrades.
Lawmakers defended the practice of using budget earmarks, saying it's often the only way to get funding for local projects since the executive branch largely controls what's included in the state's capital budget.
"While I understand the governor's perspective, the budget put forth by the Legislature was conservative in its revenue estimates and made allowances for local priorities," said Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, in a statement on the overrides. "Most of these local priorities are very important to our communities and would not be funded otherwise."
Staff reporter Bill Kirk contributed to this story.