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Mass. Lawmakers Plan To Put $97 Million In Vetoed Funds Back Into State Budget

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House leaders aim to restore $97 million in spending to the $38.1 billion state budget signed by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month, planning on Wednesday to begin overriding nearly 60 percent of the funding vetoed by the governor.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House planned to restore "most, if not all" of the $38 million in earmarks axed by the governor from the budget, as well as funding for early education, $17.6 million in kindergarten expansion grants, $5.2 million for the University of Massachusetts and funding for community colleges and economic development programs.

The House and Senate are meeting Wednesday in the first of two or possibly three days of sessions scheduled for this week to wrap up business before the Legislature recesses from formal activities for the month of August. With 87 votes planned to complete the targeted overrides, House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad told members that she hoped to whip through the roll calls at two-minute intervals "if you're willing to stay and push your button."

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A bill authorizing a sales tax holiday for the weekend of Aug. 15 and Aug. 16 is also on deck for the House on Wednesday as DeLeo said his concerns about forfeiting as much as $25 million in tax revenue to the state were outweighed by the benefits shared with him by local retailers and consumers.

"I've had some reservations about it, especially because of the financing, and having said that I also have to say that talking to some of the, not just big box store owners, but some of the smaller retail folks at the local level, they tell me about the importance of such a holiday," DeLeo said after a caucus with House Democrats.

Baker vetoed a total of $162 million from the budget he signed in early July, including $38 million in earmarks set aside by lawmakers for projects and celebrations in their hometowns and districts. The governor said he believed the cuts were necessary to keep the state budget in balance in fiscal 2016 and avoid a repeat of the mid-year budget cuts that became necessary shortly after he took office.

DeLeo said he had received numerous phone calls and letters from members about overriding the governor's $17.6 million cut for kindergarten expansion grants that would reduce funding for that program to $1 million in the state budget. The administration argued that the grant program was intended to help school districts start kindergarten programs, but not continue to fund them forever. Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore said about 90 percent of the state has expanded kindergarten, and now the program merely subsidizes already expanded kindergarten programs.

The kindergarten grants were the first veto overridden Wednesday in the House by a vote of 155-0. DeLeo also highlighted overrides he hoped to pass to restore funding for an intern-partnership and the MassCan program, which he said would help introduce students to computer sciences and ensure that Massachusetts has enough teachers to train students for the technology-driven economy.

Among the earmarks sliced from the budget by Baker, the Legislature had signed off on items such as $100,000 to renovate Nicholson Stadium in Methuen, $138,000 for the Charles River Conservancy to complete environmental remediation work at the Lynch Family skate park in Cambridge, and $100,000 to build a canoe launch on Wigwam Pond in Dedham.

Baker also reduced funding to develop a UMass Lowell facility in Haverhill, the hometown of Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey, by $1.5 million, leaving $2.5 million for the lease and operation of the satellite campus.

"I don't think anyone knows their districts better than the local representatives in terms of what their particular districts may need and as a result of this I've always looked at this as another form of local aid that helps our cities and towns," DeLeo said, of reversing the earmark vetoes.

Baker, in issuing his vetoes, warned that non-tax revenues were likely to come in lower than initially projected in fiscal 2016, and other areas of government such as public counsel services would require additional funding later in the year.

Dempsey, however, said he was "very confident" the state could afford to restore funding for some key priorities without jeopardizing the budget's bottom line.

"If you look at the assumption we made around some of the revenues for FY16, we're very cautious," Dempsey said, pointing to surplus revenues at the end of fiscal 2015, conservative estimates for one-time tax settlements and the likelihood that budgeted spending growth for the year will still fall below 4 percent.

"We're not intending to override every veto made by the governor," Dempsey said.

Overriding the governor's budget vetoes requires support from two-thirds of both the House and Senate. Overrides must start in the House, and the Senate this week plans to consider any overrides referred by the lower chamber.

DeLeo said the House this week would also consider, likely on Thursday, some of the budget amendments returned by Baker, including a deal reached between the governor and legislative leaders to delay a corporate tax break in order to pay for an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for low-income families.

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