House and Senate lawmakers are preparing to give final approval today to a $34 billion state spending plan that includes an increase in funding for the University of Massachusetts system and new measures to crack down on welfare fraud.
Legislative negotiators reached agreement on the budget Sunday night and expect to send it to Governor Deval Patrick today, when the new fiscal year begins. Patrick has not indicated whether he will sign the plan or send it back with changes.
The budget would pump an additional $39 million into the University of Massachusetts campuses, avoiding the need for tuition and fee hikes for the upcoming academic year. That fulfills a major campaign led by the university’s new president, Robert L. Caret.
In a statement, Caret called the funding increase a “major step” toward his goal of having the state and students share equally in paying for the cost of higher education. Currently, students shoulder more than half of the burden.
The budget would also require photographs on Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, to prevent trafficking of the cards. A task force would also be established to study ways to tighten the welfare system, amid reports of fraud and abuse that have alarmed the public and state lawmakers.
Massachusetts judges would see a salary increase of $30,000 a year, fulfilling one of their main requests, while some 30,000 early educators who work in day care centers across the state and earn $23,800 a year, on average, would see their salaries rise by a much more modest $714 a year.
Overall, the spending blueprint calls for about $25 million more for the early education system, far short of the $130 million increase that Patrick had requested as part of his goal of providing universal access to pre-kindergarten for every child in the state. Legislators poured cold water on that request, arguing that Patrick’s bureaucracy that oversees the early education system has not been spending state money efficiently. Lawmakers set up a commission to study ways to improve the system.
William J. Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education & Care, said he was grateful that lawmakers at least provided some additional money for low-paid day care workers
“Would we like to do better? Of course,” he said Monday. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
While the budget is heading toward the governor’s desk, Patrick and state lawmakers remain at loggerheads over other thorny financial matters facing the state, namely how to shore up the state’s ailing transportation system.
While Patrick and the Legislature have tentatively agreed to raise tobacco taxes by $1 a pack, gas taxes by 3 cents a gallon and certain business taxes to pay for transportation, the two sides have yet to agree on the final shape of those increases.
Patrick has argued that the Legislature’s plan, which aims to funnel $805 million in new revenue into transportation, falls short of that figure once tolls on the western part of the Massachusetts Turnpike are eliminated in 2017. He has threatened to reject the Legislature’s plan, and send it back for changes.
Lawmakers, however, say they are confident their bill meets the needs of the transportation system. They point out that they have approved their bill by veto-proof majorities in both chambers, meaning they can override any changes Patrick wants.