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With additional money prioritized for pre-school, housing supports and child welfare, Senate leaders on Wednesday presented a $36.25 billion budget plan for next year that increases total state total spending by almost $1.7 billion from this year.
The Senate budget goes further than the House to chip away at the waiting list for early education programs and also increases spending in the embattled Department of Children and Families by about $25 million to reduce caseloads for social workers and equip the department with new technology to help track and manage families under its watch.
Democratic leaders also earmarked millions of dollars to fight “the scourge of substance abuse” that has emerged in recent months as top priority for lawmakers in the both the House and Senate, with overdose deaths tied to heroin and opiates on the rise and making headlines around the state.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee released the bill Wednesday morning in anticipation of a full debate on the spending plan next week. Senators have until Friday afternoon to review the document and propose amendments before the debate begins next Wednesday. A conference committee will likely spend June trying to merge the House and Senate budgets into a single plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
The Ways and Means Committee unanimously endorsed the budget bill, which bears a close resemblance to the spending plan approved in the House last month and has been described as the first post-recession budget giving the Legislature some leeway to invest in new initiatives while also striving not to overextend in a still fragile economy.
The total spending in the Ways and Means budget is $77 million shy of the final House version and $124 million less than proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick in January. Leaders are proposing to spend just under the level of anticipated revenue growth of 4.9 percent in fiscal 2015.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat, said he was proud that the budget his committee produced, which will be his last as he plans to retire at the end of the year, makes strides toward tackling the opioid addiction crisis.
“Everyone has to be in on this because kids are dying,” Brewer said Wednesday morning.
A day after the Senate unanimously passed legislation aimed at improving access to treatment and insurance coverage for addiction, the Senate budget plan includes $18 million for substance abuse supports, including $10 million for treatment, $5 million for substance abuse counselors in schools, and additional money to expand the use of Narcan which can reverse the effects of overdoses.
Brewer said mental health services would also see a $27.8 million increase under his proposal that keeps Taunton Hospital open and directs $7.8 million in new funding to the Worcester Recovery Center to open unused wings with a total of 52 new patient beds.
“We don’t agree on all things but I certainly am very appreciative of many of the initiatives we’ve embraced in this budget, particularly on mental health and substance abuse,” said Sen. Richard Ross, the ranking Republican on the committee who voted in favor of the proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr praised investments in special education, substance abuse, child welfare, and public safety in the Senate budget, and said the committee had “made laudable strides in the proposal to reduce its dependence on the stabilization fund and increasing taxes.”
“Today’s action by the committee is an important starting point, and in the days ahead we must work vigorously to secure initiatives to grow jobs, reform state government, and find savings and efficiencies to complete the effort,” Tarr said in a statement. “Our caucus will be offering many ways to do so, and we look forward to working with our colleagues to build a post-recession Massachusetts that has efficiency and fiscal discipline in state government, and an economic climate that promotes prosperity for years to come.”
While the budget proposal includes no new taxes or fees, which must originate in the House, Senate leaders are relying on $20 million in anticipated slot parlor revenues and $53 million from casino licensing fees that are in doubt as anti-gambling advocates are fighting in court to let the voters decide in November whether to allow a gaming expansion in Massachusetts.
The budget also relies on $140 million from the rainy day fund, $412 million in spending controls, and a total of $250 million in one-time revenues, which is about $30 million less than the House budget, to balance the books.
“This is the best budget I’ve worked on in a recovery economy,” said Brewer, noting that the total of one-time revenues used in the budget is the lowest it’s been in a decade. “It does present a different set of challenges than a hemorrhaging economy.”
The budget reflects the agreement reached early with the House to increase local aid for public schools by $100 million and boost unrestricted aid by $25 million over last year, but Brewer said his committee is also recommending full funding for the special education circuit breaker and a $17 million increase to $70 million for regional school transportation.
“This is the highest level in the program’s history,” Brewer said of the school busing funds.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said Brewer and the Ways and Means Committee made local aid a “very large priority.”
“The investment of additional funds, almost $20 million more, for regional school transportation will make a huge difference in a lot of medium-sized and small communities throughout the state, because as the state gets closer to full funding for that account it frees up money that can be spent in the classroom on basic education,” Beckwith said.
At $519 million, funding for the University of Massachusetts should be sufficient to freeze tuition and fees for students for the second straight year under a deal reached last year between university officials and lawmakers to move toward a 50 percent state share of university funding, Brewer said.
The draft budget, however, allocates less funding than the House did toward the other public universities and communities colleges - about $25 million - which could trigger higher student expenses on those campuses and become a point of contention during debate, said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer.
“It’s very close to the House. When you step back and look at these two budgets they’re remarkably similar, one of the most similar budgets coming out of the House and Senate in all my time and the bottom line is very close,” Widmer said, calling the approach a “reasonable” balance between spending increases and reducing the state’s reliance on one-time money and reserves for budget balance.
Like the House, the Senate version also recommends a$1.8 billion contribution to the state pension fund to reduce the time it will take to fully fund the pension system by four years to 2036.
In the area of early education, the Senate Ways and Means budget proposes to increase funding for income-eligible early education programming by $17.5 million, surpassing the amount proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick and approved in by the House for fiscal 2015. Brewer said the investment will accommodate 3,000 new children, making a dent in the roughly 25,000 pre-schoolers on waiting lists.
While the Department of Children and Families would receive an additional $25 million over fiscal 2014 spending levels, Brewer said the funding would help reduce caseloads, but wouldn’t guarantee that it was sufficient to meet the goal of a 15-to-1 case ratio per social worker. He also said the Senate was “less prescriptive” than the House in setting limits on types of cases DCF social workers can handle at one time, but set aside $4 million for the Children’s Trust Fund to augment family home visits.
An additional $12.5 million would be allocated for rental vouchers to assist 1,000 new families under the budget plan, a residential assistance programs for families in transition would receive $10.5 million, a $500,000 increase, and household assistance benefits would be increased to $8,000, from $4,000.
Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said given the lack of appetite for new taxes the budget makes “smart” and targeted investments to begin tackling large issues that will require attention for years to come.
“The focus is clearly on prevention and on investing in young people at a time when it makes the most difference. Early education programs, home visiting are really things that can shift a child’s trajectory toward a much more positive life outcomes,” Berger said. “It’s limited like the governor’s budget and the House budget by the fact that there’s no significant new revenue so they’re able to take small smart steps that will help but they’re really small steps on very large challenges.”
The budget also includes $12 million for youth summer jobs, $3 million for new drug and specialty courts and $10 million for municipal library aid.
According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Senate budget proposal would cut funding for the arts, humanities, and sciences through the council by $1.5 million, with a $9.6 million funding level matching the level in the House-approved budget.