Lawmakers Release Final $32.5B State Budget
BOSTON — Massachusetts House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday released a final version of a $32.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins Sunday.
The spending plan includes $898 million in local aid for cities and towns, tightens restrictions on the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards by welfare recipients, and maintains 45 beds at Taunton State Hospital, which Gov. Deval Patrick had planned to close.
The budget includes no new taxes or fees but relies on $516 million in one-time funds, including a $350 million withdrawal from the state’s rainy day fund. That still leaves the state with a rainy day fund of more than $1 billion, lawmakers said.
Legislative leaders said they made a special push in the budget to help restore aid to local communities after several years of fiscal belt-tightening.
“We made a very, very strong commitment to local aid,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, who helped negotiate the final budget. “This is certainly … putting us back on track to enhance our partnership with cities and towns.”
The budget also tries to limit the use of welfare benefit cards by cracking down on what recipients can buy and where they can use the cards.
The Senate version of the budget barred the use of the cards in liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs, while the House’s version included a longer list of restrictions on EBT purchases.
The final budget is a compromise of both plans, said Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“We have a list of prohibited purchases, a list of prohibited vendors, penalties for willful misuse of EBT cards,” he said. “It’s firm, but it is fair.”
The budget also includes $28.5 million in new funding for housing programs, $11 million for homeless student transportation, $10 million for community colleges, $3 million for front-tooth fillings for MassHealth clients and $750,000 for a new class of Environmental Police officers.
“I think we have put together a package that is fiscally responsible,” Dempsey said. “Our use of one-time revenues, our use of the rainy day fund, our ability to embrace reform, all of these things have been very, very important to the bond rating agencies.”
The budget faces a final up or down vote in both chambers Thursday before heading to Patrick, who has 10 days to review it and issue vetoes before signing off on the plan.
Lawmakers have already approved a $1.25 billion interim budget to keep state government operating in the meantime.
Also Wednesday, House and Senate lawmakers approved an MBTA bailout bill and legislation to maintain the state’s roads and bridges for the new fiscal year.
The bill would provide state help to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to close a remaining deficit for the fiscal year starting Sunday and stave off deeper cuts in service.
The T’s board, originally faced with a $159 million deficit, voted earlier this year to raise fares an average of 23 percent and reduce service, which officials estimate would reduce the deficit by about two-thirds.
The bill calls for the state to transfer to the MBTA about $50 million from a state fund made of up motor vehicle inspection fees.
House and Senate lawmakers also approved a road and bridge bill.
The bill authorizes $200 million for the maintenance and upkeep of municipal roads and bridges across the state.
Legislative leaders said the $200 million marks a high for so-called Chapter 90 funding and demonstrates a strong commitment to local road and bridge funding.
“These moneys will provide the opportunity for cities and towns to make necessary infrastructure improvements that will enhance public safety, aid commuters, and encourage tourism,” said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop.