BOSTON The Massachusetts House passed a $34 billion annual budget bill late Wednesday night, after adding nearly $135 million in spending to the House Ways and Means proposal during three days of extended deliberations.
Every House Republican voted against the fiscal 2014 budget bill, objecting to its use of revenue from tax-raising bills that are still being worked out by legislative leaders. The budget passed 127 to 29.
The Senate will likely pass its version of the budget in May. After that, a conference committee will aim to deliver a final budget to the branches in time for the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
After its passage, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said the bill addresses many of the priorities Gov. Deval Patrick highlighted in his budget plan in “a balanced a fiscally responsible way.”
In his budget proposal, Patrick called for raising taxes by $1.9 billion to fund investments in education and transportation. The House and Senate appear poised to advance a $500 million tax bill that raises levies on tobacco, gasoline and businesses. Despite the tax increases, both Patrick and the House opted to again dip into the state’s reserves for cash to support proposed spending next year.
The Ways and Means Committee originally crafted a $33.8 billion spending plan, $1 billion lower than the proposal Patrick introduced in January.
The House budget snubbed Patrick’s plan to boost funds to early education and eliminate a waiting list for subsidized preschool. Lawmakers hesitated to invest additional funds in the Department of Early Education and Care in the wake of a state audit that showed failings around daycare oversight.
Dempsey told the News Service, “I think we invest in education, higher education, which were priorities of the governor. We are going to continue to look at early education. We think we need to do a little bit of work there in terms of having a commission review some things.”
The Ways and Means budget proposal increased unrestricted local aid for the first time since 2010 by $21.3 million over last year, partly with new gaming licensing revenue.
The budget also includes a $39 billion bump in funding to the University of Massachusetts, allowing the state to achieve a 50-50 split between state funding and tuition and fees over the next two years. The additional money will allow UMass to freeze tuition and fees.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) said the budget was fiscally irresponsible.
“Unfortunately, as adopted, the budget demonstrates the House Democrats’ continued willingness to rely on revenue found in the recently passed transportation finance bill. While the taxpayers of Massachusetts have avoided the enormity of Governor Patrick’s $1.9 billion dollar tax hike, our state’s residents should find no comfort in the $500 million dollar tax increase approved by my colleagues across the aisle,” Jones said in a statement.
Lawmakers plowed through nearly 900 amendments in three days of meetings that lasted until midnight each night. Most of the debates occurred off the House floor, in a private room next to the House chamber where members were instructed to go to talk with top Democrats about their amendments.
Before the final vote on the budget, Speaker Robert DeLeo told lawmakers he attended the memorial held Wednesday for MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, killed last week allegedly by the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. Although he did not know him before he was murdered, DeLeo said stories told by Collier’s friends and family paint the picture of a “good, decent man.” DeLeo announced he “took it upon himself” to put into the budget $100,000 in death benefits for the officer’s family.
The budget includes a $6 million increase for the judiciary branch. After almost eight years without salary increases, judges will get pay raises, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation will receive an additional $2 million.
Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, (D-Chelsea), co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the court system has been operating under a “tremendous strain” without appropriate funding levels for years.
“I am often met with concerns about the condition of the courthouses and the ability of court employees to deal with the amount of work they have,” said O’Flaherty, a practicing lawyer.
O’Flaherty said the raise is an “appropriate rate of pay that fits with the standards we have come to expect” of Massachusetts judges. Massachusetts trial court judges currently make $129,694 annually, ranking them 48th in the nation for rate of pay, after adjusting for cost of living.
During a budget hearing in February, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland told the budget panel the courts needed more money, some of which he said would be used for new hiring and raises. Members of the Governor’s Council, the panel charged with approving judicial nominees, have repeatedly said they fear the pool of candidates for judgeships will dwindle because of the pay.
Transportation Bond Bill
In the midst of the budget debate, House lawmakers also unanimously approved $300 million for local road and bridge repairs, a 50 percent increase over last year.
Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said he wanted to pass the bond bill during the budget debate so cities and towns would have the money available for the spring construction season already underway. Cities and towns had hoped to have the money by April 1.
Last year, municipal leaders were upset when Chapter 90 funds were delayed and caused them to miss a majority of the construction season. The bill (H 3379) differed from previous Chapter 90 bills by stipulating that communities must use the funds available to them within five years or apply for a waiver. Straus said it would allow cities and towns to continue the common practice of pooling money for larger projects, but anything beyond five years would need approval. The bill passed 155 to 0.
Along with handling the state’s finances for fiscal 2014, lawmakers tackled a handful of big policy issues, including the death penalty, welfare eligibility, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and a failed Republican-led proposal to roll the state’s income and sales tax both back to 5 percent.
In addition, lawmakers revived a practice of tacking on earmarks for local projects in their districts, a tradition they had steered away from in recent years. Earmarks enable lawmakers to secure funding for local projects while removing some discretion of executive branch agencies charged with administering programs based on need and merit.
A week after the Boston Marathon bombings and the murder of Collier, the MIT police officer, some lawmakers pushed to reinstate the death penalty. Rep. James Miceli’s bid to attach a death penalty amendment failed, with lawmakers voting in favor of studying the cost of reinstating capital punishment.
Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat, said although he did not file the death penalty proposal in the wake of the marathon bombings, the events illustrated the need to bring capital punishment back to the state to protect law enforcement officers. O’Flaherty, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, prevailed in his call for an analysis, with the study amendment approved 119 to 38.
Lawmakers also voted to study the merits of instituting more stringent checks on welfare eligibility, and using technology so benefits are not used to purchase prohibited items. Democrats argued that using technology would burden those in need of assistance and the technology to implement the additional checks is too expensive.