Massachusetts House releases $36.2B state budget
BOSTON (AP) — Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House unveiled a $36.2 billion state budget plan Wednesday for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said the proposal is about 5 percent higher than the estimated spending in the current fiscal year and $191 million less than the Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed 2015 fiscal year budget.
The House plan would increase funding for local aid by $25 million over Patrick’s proposal and includes $61 million in new spending for community colleges, state universities and the University of Massachusetts system, Dempsey said.
The House proposal also includes extra money for substance abuse programs to address what state officials have described as a surge in heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths. The proposal would also give the state health commission increased authority to place restrictions on prescription drugs that could be abused, and increase penalties for heroin trafficking.
The plan also rejects any new tax hikes. Patrick had proposed $57 million in new revenue by applying the state’s sales tax to candy and soda.
University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret said the House budget includes enough money to allow the university system to institute a second consecutive tuition and fee freeze.
Dempsey said the House budget draws $140 million from state’s rainy day fund, the smallest amount in four years and less than the governor’s budget. He said the House proposal would still leave the state with more than $1.1 billion in the account, the fourth-largest of any state.
“We are trending in the right direction,” Dempsey said, referring to the state’s economic outlook, “but we still need to be cautious.”
He said the spending plan also increases spending on mental health services and programs for the elderly.
Patrick said “there’s a lot to like” in the House budget, while acknowledging that he and House leaders don’t see eye to eye on everything.
“They don’t accept everything that we propose, but they’re very consistent in many, many areas, particularly in transportation,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work with members in the amendment process over the next couple of days and onto the floor.”
Patrick said the House plan short-changes early education and the state’s “innovation schools” which are designed to have greater flexibility than regular public schools to help close the achievement gap with minority and poor students.
The budget quickly came under criticism from youth job advocates, who said it would cut $13.5 million from six youth jobs and violence prevention programs, jeopardizing over 1,000 summer jobs.
Environmental groups also criticized the House plan, saying it falls short of what’s needed to protect the state’s parks, pools, beaches, rivers and forests.
House Republicans faulted Democrats for blocking proposed amendments on local aid, education spending, and the state’s welfare system, but said they are “undeterred.”
“We as a Legislature must make considerable strides in delivering a budget that is mindful of the economic times, while producing a spending plan that delivers an accountable and transparent state government,” Republican House Leader Brad Jones said in a statement.
Dempsey said the House and Senate already reached an agreement on local aid and education spending. He said amendments related to the state’s welfare system were debated as part of a separate welfare overhaul bill.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said that in the context of a tight fiscal year, the House plan is a “budget that moves communities forward.”
Legal aid advocates said the House budget doesn’t go far enough to support services for low-income people facing legal issues such as child custody, domestic violence, housing, health care, or access to government benefits.
The House budget proposal also seeks to tighten up restrictions on travel expenses and meal reimbursement rules for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
The House is expected to debate the budget proposal later this month. After that, the focus shifts to the Senate, where lawmakers must release and debate their own version of the state spending plan.