BOSTON — The Senate's Republican minority leader is pushing for limits on the use of the state's "rainy day" fund, with a proposal that would require a supermajority vote by the Legislature to approve any future drawdowns.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, wants to amend the state Constitution to require a two-thirds vote of the 200-member Legislature to approve withdrawals from the reserves. He said there need to be checks and balances on use of the money.
"Among the many things the pandemic has taught us is the importance of the rainy day fund to the economic survival of the state," Tarr said. "So I think it's important that we put safeguards around expenditures from the fund."
Tarr said there have been plenty of years where "it hasn't been raining" but the Legislature has still pulled money out of the reserves to balance the budget.
"Using those funds shouldn't be a first resort — it should be a last resort," he said.
Tarr's proposal goes before the Legislature's Committee on Revenue on Monday for a public hearing. It's a first, incremental step in the long process of amending the state Constitution.
Currently, withdrawals from the fund only require a simple majority of the Legislature which means the Democratic controlled House and Senate have total control over use of the money. There are 160 House members and 40 state senators.
Tarr's proposal means future drawdowns on the fund would require support from the Legislature's Republican minority, but he doesn't see it as a partisan issue.
The debate over control of future drawdowns from the fund comes at a time when Beacon Hill is relying heavily on the reserves to help plug revenue shortfalls in the state's $46 billion operating budget caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Gov. Charlie Baker filed a preliminary $45.6 billion budget in January proposing a $1.7 billion drawdown on the state's reserve fund, which would leave $1.1 billion in the kitty. A House version of the spending plan for the next fiscal year, released last week, would tap about $1.8 billion from the reserve fund.
The current fiscal year's budget relied on a $1.3 billion withdrawal from reserves as well as more than $550 million in federal pandemic relief.
Massachusetts stands to get $4.5 billion in direct funding from the latest federal relief package, and Baker administration officials and lawmakers have suggested that some of that money could be used to offset planned reserve drawdowns.
Baker has made rebuilding the reserve a key part of his agenda, by holding the line on tapping into the funds and making regular deposits. The state began last year with more than $3.5 billion in reserves.
The state's reserves directly affect its credit rating, which in turn influences how much the state pays in interest when it borrows money for projects.
Under state law, revenue from capital gains taxes on investment profits over a certain threshold are automatically deposited into the account.
Tarr said he supports tapping the reserve fund to deal with the impact of the pandemic, pointing out that it's meant for emergencies. It's one of the reasons he says it's important to prevent irresponsible withdrawals from the reserves.
"Had we not had the resources in that fund going into the pandemic the budget situation would have been much different," he said.
The proposal faces a steep climb on Beacon Hill. To put the question before voters, the plan would need to be approved by at least 50% of the House and Senate — meeting together two consecutive constitutional conventions. That means the earliest it could appear on the statewide election ballot would be 2024.
The state Constitution has been amended 121 times since it was ratified in 1780, according to the Secretary of State's Office. Voters most recently changed it in 2006, when they approved the state's health care law.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.