Mass. House panel unveils proposed $32B budget
BOSTON—A nearly $32.3 billion Massachusetts budget proposed Wednesday by a key House panel would boost local aid to cities and towns while holding the line on taxes and cutting some government spending.
The budget unveiled by the House Ways and Means Committee for the fiscal year starting July 1 relies on $522 million in one-time revenues, including a $400 million withdrawal from the state's so-called Rainy Day fund.
The spending plan, which is scheduled to be debated by the full House later this month, was applauded by municipal leaders but criticized by some social services advocates. It calls for spending $14 million less than the budget proposed in January by Gov. Deval Patrick.
The panel rejected the governor's call for $260 million in new revenues, including a 50-cents-per-pack hike in the cigarette tax and a sales tax on candy and soda.
"By not adopting these proposals, we have reaffirmed our commitment to responsible budgeting by keeping the operating budget within our current means and do not shift the burden of balancing the budget on to the shoulders of Massachusetts taxpayers," said committee chair Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill.
The House budget also turns aside Patrick's call for closing the Bay State Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Norfolk, but accepts the governor's proposal to shut down a state psychiatric hospital in Taunton and move many patients and workers to a new facility in Worcester. Advocates for the mentally ill and lawmakers from southeastern Massachusetts have strongly opposed the move.
The House plan would guarantee an additional $65 million in unrestricted local aid to cities and towns, whereas the administration's budget had made the extra money conditional on the state meeting certain revenue goals in the current fiscal year.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the guarantee was welcome news for mayors and town officials.
"Communities have greater budget certainty, and they can actually take this $65 million and incorporate it into their budgets to fund police officers, firefighters, teachers and ongoing operations," said Beckwith.
The spending plan would also boost education aid, ensuring that every school district in the state will receive an increase of at least $40 per student over current levels. For the first time, it would provide reimbursements to school districts for the cost of transporting homeless students to public schools.
In addition, the committee included $159 million to cover the projected cost of a recent ruling by the state's highest court that legal, non-citizen immigrants must be made eligible for Commonwealth Care, the state's subsidized health care program. The governor had proposed using revenues from increased tobacco taxes to cover the added costs.
Dempsey said that while the economy continues to recover, state revenues have yet to return to pre-recession levels and difficult choices were still necessary. The budget calls for about $268 million in spending cuts or adjustments.
Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said it would result in the loss of 1,200 youth jobs and reduce funding for gang prevention efforts by $16 million.
The AIDS Action Committee criticized the budget for cutting services to people living with HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis, calling it a "short-sighted approach to investment in public health."
Patrick's plan to centralize management of the state's 15 community colleges was not embraced by the Ways and Means Committee, but the panel did outline a plan calling for greater coordination among the colleges themselves and an increased role for the governor and state Board of Higher Education in how the schools are run.
"We think it's a balanced approach and really a hybrid of what the governor proposed and where we landed," Dempsey said.
The committee also proposed several new restrictions on what welfare recipients can purchase using state-issued electronic benefit cards, including firearms, cosmetics, jewelry, travel services, health clubs, tattoo parlors and gambling. The restrictions are similar to those recommended last month by a special commission on EBT cards, and would add to the current ban on purchases of alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets.
After the full House approves the budget, it will go to the Senate for consideration.