By Matt Murphy and Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — The House and Senate made quick work Monday of two major spending bills, including a $34 billion budget for fiscal 2014 that arrived on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk hours after the start of the new fiscal year.
The House voted 122-29 along party lines to approve the budget, and the Senate followed suit voting 36-3 in favor of the deal struck between Democratic legislative leaders late Sunday that included welfare system reforms and a promise from House Democrats to take up the Senate’s full welfare bill before October.
With the July 4 holiday week beckoning, both branches also unanimously passed a $133.4 million supplemental spending bill for fiscal 2013 that pays the state’s bill for snow and ice removal from the winter, reimburses cities and towns for last week’s special election and makes $10 million available for youth summer jobs.
Gov. Patrick had 10 days to consider the budget, while he also weighs his response to a $500 million tax bill necessary to fund major portions of the spending bill. Patrick could veto individual sections of the budget, but still sign off on the majority of the spending.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey said most of the attention will be paid to the areas of the budget where lawmakers have boosted spending, but he said budget leaders have been prudent about rebuilding the state’s reserves after the recession.
Dempsey said the spending plan would leave Massachusetts with more than $1.5 billion in its stabilization account at the end of fiscal 2013, making it one of just four states with more than $1 billion in its rainy day fund. He said the Legislature also approved the first increase in unrestricted local aid for cities and towns in five years, and made investments in early education and elder care to reduce waiting lists for pre-school and home care services.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and House Minority Leader Brad Jones, however, questioned how the final budget wound up with a larger bottom line than either the budget passed by the House or Senate.
“Both the House and Senate adopted revenue initiatives from the other branch,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, in explaining the $75 million increase over the House and Senate. Brewer said the budget was able to fund a number of areas at higher levels than in past years, including $10 million for a rental assistance program that was previously funded at $500,000, and aid to local schools that will ensure all districts receive an increase.
Jones also expressed his disappointment that the budget dropped some key House-approved reforms to save money, such as changes to the state law that would have made it easier to privatize the delivery of some state services. “This budget is short of what it could or should be,” Jones said.
On the issue of welfare reform, Dempsey said the conference committee budget and the supplemental budget together included the welfare reforms first proposed by the Ways and Means Committee back in April, including a requirement that photo identification be added to EBT cards to cut down on trafficking. Opponents have criticized the cost of implementing photo IDs and whether it will root out enough fraud to justify the expense.
The budget also creates a bureau of program integrity and a task force to develop a common eligibility verification process across state agencies for public services and benefits.
Dempsey said the House would consider Senate President Therese Murray’s comprehensive welfare reform bill before October, and in the fall the House will also address non-pension retiree benefit reform. Based on the recommendation of a bipartisan commission, Gov. Patrick has proposed to increase the age and years of service required for a state employee to be eligible for health care coverage in retirement.
“I take the House at their word,” Brewer said.
Republicans on Monday were also concerned that the budget relies on at least $500 million in new taxes that have yet to be finalized as legislators wait for Patrick to return transportation financing legislation with an amendment. The governor has suggested he might either call for tolls on the turnpike to remain up beyond 2017, or another small gas tax increase to go along with the immediate 3-cent increase called for in the tax bill.
Brewer said he would prefer to see the tolls remain and drivers on the turnpike pay for the upkeep and policing of the highway as opposed to asking drivers from all over the state to pay more through a gas tax increase.
In addition to questioning where the money came from to boost spending out of the conference committee, Jones said he had concerns about the process, including the level of involvement and negotiations between staff and Democratic leaders to the exclusion of the minority party representatives on the conference committee.
The budget includes significant spending increases for the University of Massachusetts and other public universities and colleges as legislative leaders looked to move the state toward funding 50 percent of higher education costs and to avoid tuition and fee increases the next two years.
Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland said the financial support in the fiscal 2014 budget for higher education would be enough not just for UMass, but also the other state universities and community colleges to freeze tuition and fees.
“We are thrilled that the legislature through its FY14 conference committee budget has seen fit to make a major investment in our system of public higher education,” Freeland said in a statement. “Everyone wins in a budget that allows campuses to avoid raising students’ fees, while also rewarding campuses for making progress in improving graduation rates and closing achievement gaps.”