Mass. Senate Passes $36.2B Budget

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The Massachusetts Senate has approved a $36.2 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 on a 39-1 roll call vote.

During two days of debate that ended with the vote late Thursday, senators plowed through nearly 1,000 proposed amendments to the spending plan, approving a series of the changes while rejecting others.

The bill "includes many commendable features that are important for fiscal discipline and encouraging economic growth, including a relatively limited draw from the state's stabilization fund, and the absence of any new broad-based taxes," Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said in a statement.

One approved amendment would expand the state's nickel deposit law to include bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages. Supporters of the effort to update the three-decade-old law are already pushing to put the question before voters in November if the Legislature doesn't act first.

The Senate has voted in the past to expand the law to cover beverages such as bottled water and sports drinks, but the measure hasn't advanced in the House.

Another amendment approved by the Senate would let Massachusetts residents buy pepper spray without a firearms identification card.

Supporters said removing the FID requirement would make it easier for women to purchase pepper spray for self-defense. But the measure would make it a criminal offense to sell pepper spray without a license or sell it to anyone under 18.

The House has approved a similar measure.

Yet another amendment approved by the Senate would bar employers from requiring workers or job applicants from disclosing usernames or passwords to personal social media accounts.

The amendment would also make it illegal for an employer to force workers or applicants to add the employer to any list of contacts associated with personal social media accounts and prohibit employers from threatening action against an employee or job seeker for refusing to disclose their username or password.

Another Senate-approved amendment seeks to clarify the conditions under which the email account of someone who has died can be made available during the settling of their estate.

Early in the budget debate, the Senate rejected three Republican-backed amendments that would have lowered taxes, including reducing the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent and cutting the state income tax, currently 5.2 percent, to 5 percent.

The Democratic-led chamber voted down both proposals.

A third GOP-sponsored amendment would have eliminated a law enacted last year that links automatic increases in the gas tax to future increases in the state's rate of inflation.

Senators also voted down that proposed amendment.

The question of whether to eliminate the so-called indexing of the gas tax could go before Massachusetts voters in November in the form of a ballot question.

A six-member House and Senate committee will be named to hammer out a final compromise budget.

That plan must be given final approval in both chambers before being sent off to Gov. Deval Patrick for his signature.

This article was originally published on May 23, 2014.