Some items off the table as House takes up state budget

Morning light hits the dome of the Massachusetts State House in Boston on March 13, 2019.
Morning light hits the dome of the Massachusetts State House in Boston on March 13, 2019. –Craig F. Walker/Globe file

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts House lawmakers preparing for debate on the state’s $42.7 billion budget have submitted more than 1,300 amendments to the July 1 fiscal year spending plan, but several of the more contentious issues facing the Legislature appear to be off the table — for the moment at least.

Democratic leaders have barred consideration of amendments dealing with the potential legalization of sports betting in Massachusetts. They’ve also made clear that any serious discussion of new or higher taxes should wait until later in the legislative session.

The budget debate begins Monday. The Senate is expected to tackle its own version of the spending plan next month.

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The House plan includes more than $200 million in additional state assistance for public schools in anticipation of changes in the formula used for distributing that aid. Those changes, however, also won’t be debated until later.

A closer look:

DON’T BET ON SPORTS BETTING, YET

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, in his proposed budget filed earlier this year, included $35 million in estimated revenue from legalized sports gambling. Baker has filed legislation to allow the state’s three casino operators to offer both on-site and online betting. The legislation would also permit other online entities, such as daily fantasy sports operators, to take bets on professional sports.

Not so fast, says House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The Winthrop Democrat, a strong proponent of the 2011 statute that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts, appears to be taking a far more cautious approach to sports betting. A lot more discussion was needed, he said recently, and predicted sports betting won’t be as easy to implement “as some people think it may be.”

Democratic leaders pushed through an order prohibiting introduction of any amendments related to sports betting or online lottery sales during the upcoming budget debate.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned federal law prohibiting states from legalizing sports betting. Rhode Island is among several states that have since approved sports betting.

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WAITING ON TAXES

A number of Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups continue to push for additional state revenue to fund education, shore up the state’s aging transportation infrastructure and address other problems. But don’t expect the final House budget to include new or increased taxes.

DeLeo and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat, haven’t ruled out taking up revenue measures during the current two-year session, but they believe any proposals should be fully vetted by legislative committees before votes are taken.

Baker offered several targeted taxes in his spending plan, including a levy on manufacturers of opioid medications and an excise tax on e-cigarettes and vaping products. Both were dropped from the budget proposal sent to the House by the Ways and Means panel.

Amendments filed by the House Republican leader, Rep. Brad Jones of North Reading, seek to restore the opioid and vaping taxes. Those amendments, likely to be rejected, could put Democrats in the odd position of voting down Republican-sponsored tax proposals.

A Cambridge Democrat, Rep. Mike Connolly, has filed an amendment to increase the state’s tax on most long-term capital gains from the current 5.05% to 8.95%. It, too, is unlikely to pass but could get a hearing at a later date.

MORE FOR EDUCATION

The House budget blueprint seeks a $218 million boost in the state’s share of support for public schools from the current fiscal year, along with a $16.5 million reserve fund for low-income students.

Democratic leaders are calling the increase in so-called Chapter 70 funding a “down payment” on an expected overhaul of a 26-year-old formula for distributing education funds that critics say shortchanges school districts with large numbers of low-income and non-English speaking students.

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The spending plan does not specify what revisions should occur. That remains under discussion by the Legislature’s Education Committee, which is weighing proposals from Baker and legislation filed by Democratic lawmakers that supporters have dubbed the “promise act.”

DeLeo and Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who is the House chair of the education panel, have expressed confidence that consensus will emerge on a new formula this year, despite disagreements with senators that scuttled previous efforts.

But not everyone is convinced. The liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center argues the funding increase in the House budget — while slightly more than that offered by Baker — is still “significantly” below what a “comprehensive fix” requires.