With Mass. Economy Slowly Recovering, Senate Proposes Modest Budget
With the state easing into economic recovery, the Senate Ways and Means Committee signed off on a budget blueprint Wednesday afternoon that would make modest new investments in education, transportation and mental health services.
The full Senate will take up the $33.9 billion spending plan next week when Senate President Therese Murray returns from a 10-day trade mission to Ireland.
The Senate package closely resembles the House budget passed last month. But both plans differ sharply from Gov. Deval Patrick's more ambitious spending plan, which collapsed earlier in the session.
Patrick's budget called for $1.9 billion in tax hikes, with the revenue to be funneled into wide-ranging transportation and education investments.
Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, took pains to emphasize the panel's restraint. But he insisted the budget's new spending — if well short of Patrick's proposal — marks a real turning point for the state.
"Our continued recovery means that we must transition away from painful cuts in recent years and be focused on investing in programs that are essential to our children, our families, and our communities," he said, in opening remarks at the Ways and Means hearing.
The Senate budget, which would add $1.4 billion (or 4.4 percent) to the fiscal year 2013 budget, emphasizes human services.
There is $22.4 million in new money for special education and $6.2 million to eliminate the wait list for elder home care.
Senators on the Ways and Means Committee cast the latter investment as a money-saver — home care is cheaper than nursing care — and a move toward a more humane policy.
"Keeping them in their own home is the best we can do for our seniors who have done so much for us," said Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat who serves as assistant vice chairman of Ways and Means.
The Senate budget also puts an additional $20 million into subsidized child care, taking 2,000 children off the state's wait list. That's an improvement over the House budget, which offered no new money for child care.
But it's a far cry from the $131 million Patrick proposed — an amount, he argued, that would eliminate the state's 30,000-child wait list altogether.
The Senate budget pours $19.5 million into rental supports for the poor. And it aims to provide better temporary housing for families on the cusp of homelessness.
Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, called the blueprint a "step in the right direction," but said advocates will push for improvements in the final budget.
The Senate budget differs from the House spending plan in a couple of ways. It rejects a House effort to crack down on welfare fraud.
And the Senate budget provides for a smaller increase in higher education spending.
The House budget moves toward a 50-50 split in University of Massachusetts funding — half from the state, half from the school — over the course of two years. But the Senate budget offers up just a quarter of the funding.
Brewer suggested, in an interview after the Ways and Means vote, that the House and Senate simply chose to emphasize different areas of the budget.
"Obviously you can't be all things to all people all the time," he said.
UMass officials said the Senate's less generous budget would make it difficult to impose a tuition and fees freeze.
"We are not going to give up on the students of Massachusetts," UMass President Robert Caret said in a statement. "We are going to make our case for 50-50 funding as the Senate moves forward with its budget debate. The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise."
If the Senate budget passes as proposed, the upper and lower chambers will have to work out their differences on higher education spending in a conference committee.
But the real budget drama came earlier in the legislative session, when legislators in both houses rejected Patrick's sweeping tax hikes.
The House and Senate settled, instead, on $500 million in gasoline and tobacco taxes. And the Senate would go a bit further — imposing $40 million in new fees on utility companies, for instance, and tapping an underground storage tank cleanup fund for $80 million.
All the money would go toward transportation improvements.
But if the governor's more ambitious approach is dead, some left-leaning advocates and analysts are still voicing disappointment with the Legislature's restrained approach.
Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, had a lukewarm response to the Senate budget unveiled Wednesday.
"While the Senate Ways and Means Budget makes some modest investments in transportation and education that are good for the long term strength of our economy," he said in a statement, "it leaves funding levels for early education, public health and local aid well below where they were before the income tax cuts of 1998-2002 — cuts that still cost the state $3 billion per year."
Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he is concerned about the Senate's modest investment in UMass. Higher education, he said, is vital to the state's future.
But in general, he endorsed the Senate's approach. "I think, overall, what strikes me about this budget is that it reflects appropriately the modest growth in the Massachusetts economy," he said.
This program aired on May 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.