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Mass. House begins debate on $32B budget plan

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / April 23, 2012
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BOSTON—The Massachusetts House began debate Monday on a $32.3 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 that Democratic leaders said took a balanced approach between maintaining essential services while continuing to hold the line on spending and taxes.

The House was expected to take several days to sift through more than 800 proposed amendments to the spending plan. Many are likely to be voted down without debate, while others of similar subject matter will be consolidated into single proposals for debate.

Lawmakers turned back an amendment offered by House Republican leader Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, to roll back the state's sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent in three steps beginning on July 1, 2013.

"It will keep the pressure on us to continue to look for ways to be efficient, to look for reforms," Jones argued.

The House voted 119-37 to accept a further amendment that shipped the proposal off to a study committee. The tactic, often referred to as "inoculating" an amendment, spares members from having to take what could be a politically unpopular vote on the original amendment.

Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, defended the move to send Jones' amendment to study, saying it would be a mistake to act without examining the potential impacts of a sales tax rollback on the state's finances. Jones retorted that no study was ever done of the possible impact on taxpayers when the sales tax was raised from 5 percent to 6.25 percent in 2009.

The House also approved a series of education-related amendments designed to boost spending for a number of programs, from Head Start and the state's Metco program to workforce training grants and financial aid programs for higher education students.

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly 5-1 in the House, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is generally able to keep a tight rein on the budget approval process.

The spending plan proposes to close a projected $940 million budget gap through a combination of spending cuts and adjustments, one-time revenues and a $400 million withdrawal from state's stabilization fund, also known as the "Rainy Day" fund.

In a brief statement to members at the outset of debate, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, the chief architect of the House budget, defended the panel's decision to reject Gov. Deval Patrick's call for $260 million in new revenues, including higher taxes on tobacco and the elimination of some business tax exemptions.

Dempsey said Democratic leaders understood that any increase in taxes or fees "would have an impact not only on the people of the Commonwealth, but the business community."

The proposed spending plan also makes a "significant contribution" to cities and towns, Dempsey said, by fully funding local aid and increasing aid to public school districts by $164 million.

Dempsey also defended a provision in the budget that would add to restrictions on purchases that welfare recipients can make using electronic benefits cards. Among the new items that would be off-limits were firearms, tattoo parlors, gambling and health clubs.

Abuse of EBT cards was "not only an affront to taxpayers ... but also an affront to those who legitimately need" welfare assistance, Dempsey said.

The House spending plan embraces Patrick's call to close a state psychiatric hospital in Taunton and move many of the patients and staff to a new facility in Worcester. But it rejects the governor's proposal to close a medium-security state prison in Norfolk.

The budget also calls for stronger coordination among the state's 15 community colleges, but it stops short of endorsing Patrick's plan to centralize the administration of the schools.

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