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Budget plan calls for more funds for child welfare

May 14, 2014

BOSTON (AP) — A $36.25 billion state spending plan unveiled Wednesday by Senate budget writers calls for increased financial support for substance abuse prevention and for the state’s beleaguered child welfare agency.

The proposal seeks an overall 4.8 percent increase in spending, but no new taxes. The bottom line is about $77 million below the budget approved by the House of Representatives last month, though it’s likely that difference will be narrowed by amendments added during Senate debate scheduled for next week.

The spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes $250 million in one-time revenues, including a $140 million transfer from the state’s rainy day fund, also part of the House budget. But Sen. Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat who’s chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the plan relies less on one-time revenues than any other state budget in the last decade.

While maintaining “fiscal discipline,” Brewer said the budget also invests new resources in several critical areas, including substance abuse and child welfare.

“Neither of these issues (is) new to the commonwealth, but events over the past year have shown us that new emphasis is needed,” he said.

The reference was to a sharp spike in drug addiction in many Massachusetts communities, and to the recent highly publicized deaths of several children whose families were involved with the state Department of Children and Families.

The spending plan would add $18 million in new spending on substance abuse prevention, including $10 million to expand access to treatment programs and $5 million to place drug abuse counselors in public schools.

The Department of Children and Families would receive nearly $40 million in new funding, with some of it going to support the hiring of additional social workers and reduce caseload to more manageable levels.

Under a previous agreement with the House, the budget would increase unrestricted state aid to cities and towns by $25 million and support for public schools — known as Chapter 70 — by $100 million.

The spending plan also offers the University of Massachusetts system sufficient funds to ward off tuition and fee increases for a second consecutive year.

Noah Berger, president of the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the Senate budget was “fiscally responsible” and focused on programs to help children.

“Like the proposals from the governor and the House, however, this budget does not call for significant new revenue, limiting the investments we can make in expanding opportunity for our young people and strengthening our state economy over the long run,” Berger said in a statement.

The budget proposal is the final one authored by Brewer, who is retiring after 26 years in the Legislature, the last four as Senate chair of the Ways and Means Committee. It’s not yet known who will succeed him as head of the powerful budget-writing panel.

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