Senate approves $513 million spending bill

The Senate passed a $513 million spending bill on Wednesday afternoon, adding to the growing pile of legislation caught in the crossfire of a seemingly widening divide between Democratic legislative leaders.

Senators passed their slimmer version of the House's $693 million supplemental budget that is almost identical to the bill the Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended on Monday. Over a nearly two-hour session, senators rejected 29 of the 30 amendments to the bill, adopting one that was a correction filed by Ways and Means chief Michael Rodrigues, who helped write the original bill.

The bills add more spending tied to a fiscal year where tax revenues through May fell well short of estimates used to build the fiscal 2023 state budget.

From what the House handed over to them, senators added $20 million in farm relief and shaved $180 million off the bottom line in their rewrite. Most of the funding is identical across both bills, although the Senate plan offers far less in funding for public employee collective bargaining agreements.

Though both chambers included $75 million to aid schools facing a sharp rise in special education costs, the House bill has a higher eligibility threshold and ties access to the funding to whether a district has already tapped available federal funds.

In the House's version, districts would be ineligible to access money from the supplemental budget if they still have unobligated Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds. The federal government provided Massachusetts with about $2.6 billion in emergency education aid during the pandemic, and as of March, a Healey administration official said more than half had not yet been spent.

It also only allows new aid to flow to districts that have seen a 10% increase or higher to their special education costs.

The Senate struck the language from the bill that would have required districts to use the ESSER money to qualify for the infusion of special education dollars, and lowered the threshold to 5%.

"Many of the communities I represent, they're going up 8% or 9% , and wouldn't hit that 10% threshold as far as an eligibility criteria, and lowering it to this criteria really allows us to continue to make the investment that we need to make into all of our school districts," Rep. Patrick O'Connor of Weymouth said.

Other differences between the House and Senate proposals include a $200 million gap between the chamber's funding for collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions: $26 million in the Senate's bill and $226 million in the House.

Representatives also proposed extending the state law that allows simulcast wagering for five years, while the Senate bill would only offer a single-year extension until July 31, 2024.

The bill will likely now go to closed-door negotiations, where these deviations will likely be the major topic of discussion.

Only a single bill that has entered conference committee so far this session has emerged — a standard road funding bill that it took lawmakers four months to come to an agreement on. Other major pieces of legislation, including the fiscal year 2024 budget and a long-promised tax relief bill, have gone into closed-door talks but have yet to come back out.

Meanwhile, pressure is building for farm aid after recent flooding caused close to $15 million in damage — where the Senate plans to send $20 million — and both chambers plan to steer $180 million to support financially strained hospitals.

The Senate rejected an amendment from Sen. Bruce Tarr that called for greater reporting and accountability for state agencies charged with overseeing the distribution of federal pandemic funding.

When dollars started flowing into the state from federal coffers for the COVID emergency response, the Legislature appropriated $1.5 million for various state agencies to provide oversight over where the influx of funds were going, Tarr said.

Two years later, only a fraction of that designated oversight funding has been used, he said, and the Gloucester Republican urged his colleagues to press agencies to make sure they are supervising the federal dollars.

The amendment was rejected, but Tarr said he hopes they will take the matter back up.

Sen. Mark Montigny filed an amendment similar to one he proposed to be attached to a tax relief bill earlier this session. It dealt with so-called home equity theft by municipalities, wherein a local government can foreclose for nonpayment of taxes, sell the property, then keep all the proceeds — not just the amount in back taxes or legal fees owed by the homeowner.

Montigny said Massachusetts is one of 11 states where this practice still takes place. The amendment was rejected again, but he promised in the past that he would keep raising the issue.

Sen. Mike Barrett, who chairs the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, filed two amendments that seek to maintain current timelines for investigations into electric vehicle charging station deployment.

The Senate bill doubles the amount of time state officials have to deliver an analysis into "any problems and challenges that may have existed concerning the operation of electric vehicle charging stations at service plazas located on the Massachusetts Turnpike, in parking lots at commuter rail stations and in parking lots of subway stations" and on a report due to the TUE Committee and House and Senate Ways and Means about electric vehicle deployment.

Massachusetts will need to have at least 200,000 passenger electric vehicles on the roads by 2025 and 900,000 by 2030 to meet the state's decarbonization commitments, energy officials from the Baker administration said last year — which will require a significant investment into the network of charging stations around the state. There were about 55,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids on the roads in Massachusetts, Baker's administration said in October.

Barrett's amendment was withdrawn prior to Wednesday's session.



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