Support the news
Massachusetts House and Senate lawmakers have reached an agreement on the state budget for the next fiscal year, which starts Saturday.
Legislators plan to vote on the $32.5 billion budget Thursday.
According to the Associated Press, the spending plan includes $898 million in local aid for cities and towns, tighter 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.
Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) joined WBUR's Morning Edition to fill us in on the details. Sen. Brewer chairs the Senate's Ways and Means Committee
Bob Oakes: After years of trimming local aid, this new budget increases funding to cities and towns. They'll be getting nearly $900 million in unrestricted funding for a total of about $5.7 billion in local aid. That's $289 million more than last year. In this budget climate, how is that possible?
Sen. Brewer: Well, our economy is recovering gradually. It's certainly not the kind of recovery that one would be excited about, but it is. We have the ninth lowest unemployment rate in the United States at 6.0 percent. Our bond rating is at the highest in the history of Massachusetts. We have sought out efficiencies throughout the budget; it is a $32.5 billion budget and direct local aid is a compact that we have had with our cities and towns over the years. They are the first responders for fire, for police and for educating our children.
I think it's a joint commitment between the House and the Senate to make sure that not only direct local aid — which is in the vicinity of $900 million — but chapter 70, our main education formula for public education, is well over $4.1 billion. And for those who have special education problems, their challenges become quite difficult for communities when people move in and they have those challenges. We have a funding mechanism called the "circuit breaker." And we are going to fully fund that circuit breaker that costs us about $242 million. But it certainly relieves a lot of the pressure on the communities who backfill those monies.
Beyond the items you just mentioned, what was the single most important thing that you felt needed to be secured or needed to be funded in this budget?
I think other than local aid, we need to make sure that our community colleges receive the reform that a lot of people have been clamoring for.
And quite honestly, the most vulnerable citizens: the mental health community. With Taunton's state hospital slated for closure by the governor — leaving southeastern Massachusettts without a significant presence for critical mental health services — we took the step to make sure we keep the lights on at Taunton State Hospital and we keep 45 beds on the campus. We're opening a new mental health hospital in Worcester: a $302 million edifice. We want to make sure that we have no net loss of beds for those individuals.
In addition, I think it's really important for our crime in our communities. We put $6.25 million in for the Shannon Grant, and $4 million for the police staffing grant to partner with our communities to keep our streets safer.
So educating our kids, keeping our streets safer, and taking care of the most vulnerable people I think are the most critical goals. And to try to do that without any new taxes or fees on the hardworking taxpayers of the commonwealth requires a balancing act quite honestly.
Alright let me go back to the big picture if I can. The budget is about three percent higher and contains no new taxes and fees, as you've talked about. Your counterpart in the House, the Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey, said last night the plan draws from the rainy day account and asses less one-time revenues than last year. All in all, it takes $350 million out of the rainy day fund. How much is left in there, and is what's left enough?
Without a doubt it is. We have one of the strongest rainy day fund accounts in the United States. The governor, when he proposed his budget in January, proposed drawing $400 million from the rainy day fund. We have got mechanisms now that require tax settlements when people settle, and sometimes they're very large settlements — in excess of $100 million. We don't get our hands on it; it's triggered to go automatically to go into the stabilization account.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the stabilization account in 2008 was at $2.2 billion, and that was the high watermark. But we have drawn it down on occasions during the absolute difficult four years that we're just emerging gradually, so that it is now in the vicinity of $400 to $500 million. Anything below that would destabilize one's bond rating, and as I recently said to you, we now have the highest bond rating in the history of Massachusetts, and one of the highest in the United States. We're very proud of that, but it has required a lot of sober discipline: saying no to a lot of accounts, finding efficiencies, finding better ways to do the government's business — while always mindful that there are people who live in the shadows of life that need our help.
This program aired on June 28, 2012.
Support the news