Senate Passes Budget

Below, please find the official press release prepared by the Senate Ways and Means Committee summarizing the Senate budget as passed. The budget now goes to a conference committee with the House.
May 25, 2012

Click here for local aid details for the Senate Budget — these did not change in the course of debate.

Senate Passes Balanced Budget — Prioritizes funding for cities and towns

(Boston) – The Massachusetts Senate on Friday voted unanimously to pass a $32.45 billion budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13). The spending plan remains consistent with the Senate’s unfaltering pledge to prioritize funding for cities and towns and commitments that allow for greater transparency and smarter financial planning for the future. Building on lessons from the past, the Senate spending plan uses a combination of ongoing revenue initiatives, one-time resources, spending reductions, and no new taxes to close a $1.4 billion budget gap, the smallest budget gap the state has faced since FY08. All Republicans voted for the budget.

As a result of the Senate’s fiscal conservancy and responsible choices in previous years, this budget increases spending from FY12, allows for the restoration of some painful cuts from previous years, and makes new targeted investments. The prudent choices made by the Legislature in recent years are also reflected by the state’s highest bond rating in history and its continued commitment to rebuilding our rainy day fund, which is on track to reach a projected balance of $1.2 billion by the end of FY13.

“The Senate budget makes smart investments to maintain our fiscal health and continue our economic recovery. Throughout this process, it remained our priority to protect important funding for the essential services and programs in the Commonwealth and I’m proud of the hard work that went into producing this budget. We are doing better than most other states but there is more work to be done. It’s important that we remain cautious in our spending and focus on the priorities that will keep the Commonwealth moving forward,” stated Senate President Therese Murray.

“The investments the Senate has made in this spending plan are not just about the present, but will move us forward and allow us to thrive in the future,” said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “We are making sure that the programs we invest in are effective and that we are putting taxpayer dollars to use in the best way possible – by investing in local aid and serving our residents most in need.”

The hallmark of this budget is the Senate’s continuing commitment to its municipal partners by boosting investments in Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), Chapter 70, and the Special Education Circuit Breaker, the three largest sources of direct state aid to cities, towns, and school districts.

The Senate increases funding for local aid by $275.4 million over FY12 projected spending, including $900 million for unrestricted local aid. Chapter 70 funding is increased to $4.17 billion, ensuring that all school districts receive at least an additional $40 per pupil in aid. Regional School Transportation is also increased by $2 million over the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal to $45.52 million. Additionally, the Senate fully funds the state’s obligation for Special Education Circuit Breaker at $242.2 million for first time since FY08, ensuring that students with special needs receive the services and education they deserve.

The Senate makes critical contributions to education initiatives across the Bay State targeting economic and community development and making key investments that will help better prepare citizens for continuing education and to enter the workforce.

The budget calls for increased oversight of community colleges, incorporating input from industry officials and vocational-technical schools to ensure they are best equipped to adapt to the changing job opportunities in the Commonwealth. Furthermore, it establishes the Office of Coordination within the Department of Higher Education to serve as a clearinghouse for all training opportunities provided by public higher education institutions.

This budget continues the commitment to improving public higher education resources and connecting those resources to workforce needs across the state. New programs include a Rapid Response workforce program to expedite the process for community colleges to create a workforce training program by targeting specific requests from employers and the creation of a degree auditing system to more easily track credits, making it simpler for students to transfer from community colleges to a state university.

In another effort to aid cities and towns, the Senate approved $5 million for the state’s community preservation trust fund. This funding is in addition to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means’ language that strengthens the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which allows municipalities to establish a fund to support local needs by expanding the use of these funds to rehabilitate and restore existing outdoor parks, other recreational resources, and support affordable housing. Furthermore, changes authorize the use of alternative municipal revenues to supplement a reduced CPA property tax surcharge.

Most importantly, these new investments do not come at the cost of our neediest residents. This budget continues to prioritize essential services for our most vulnerable citizens. The budget includes a provision to maintain mental health services, ensuring all regions of the state have access to care and includes funding to maintain 72 beds at Taunton State Hospital, an increase of 27 beds from the original Committee proposal, until a study of public and private behavioral health services is completed.

It also increases funding for elder protective services, substance abuse services, independent living centers, and the department of veterans services. And it includes increased support for our emergency food banks and our veterans.

The budget also makes strides to address homelessness and move toward a common goal to reduce reliance on the shelter system as the primary response to housing instability. The plan focuses on reallocating resources to other proven housing programs and reversing years of over-reliance on hotels and motels. The plan preserves the safety net for homeless families and does not limit the amount of time a family can stay in shelter. It also expands the circumstances in which a family that is evicted from housing can access emergency assistance. Most importantly, the Senate budget mandates housing search assistance for families receiving Emergency Assistance, in both shelters and motels.

This budget provides $750,000 for a new State Police Public Benefit Fraud Unit that will be charged with working with other local, state, and federal authorities to investigate and pursue cases where benefits intended to help our neediest families are being misused. Furthermore, this budget requires all stores that accept cash assistance benefits to post a sign explaining where to report fraud and expands the list of restricted items that cannot be purchased with cash assistance benefits and directs the Inspector General to conduct a survey to uncover inconsistent or contradictory information that is provided by cash benefit recipients.

In the wake of years of fiscal challenges and reduction in services, municipalities have faced a myriad of obstacles and public safety has remained at the top of that list. In an effort to address this, the Senate budget recommends investing in three key programs: Shannon Grants, which help maintain partnerships at the local level to address the root causes of gang violence; the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, which targets services to youth that have been identified as most likely to be criminally involved; and support for municipal police staffing in cities with the highest crime rates where violent crime have increased as police staffing has decreased.

The Senate also unanimously passed an amendment to increase public safety by closing a drunk-driving loophole that was exposed by a Supreme Judicial Court ruling last week. The language would enhance penalties for repeat drunk drivers and ensure that individuals who are convicted, had a case continued without a finding after an admission to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty, or who is assigned to an alcohol or controlled substance education, treatment, or rehabilitation program would be subject to penalties for repeat drunk driving offenses.

This budget proposal was crafted as the Commonwealth prepares to enter the fifth year of unprecedented fiscal challenges. Fiscal year 2013 saw a small but significant projected revenue increase of 4.47%. This proposal ensures that the investments made here will maximize our growth for the future. Commitments to jobs will strengthen our economy for future generations. The smart investments in this budget reflect the Senate’s dedication to funding programs that are effective and efficient while demonstrating fiscal prudence for the future. By targeting limited resources toward education, municipal services, and programs for our neediest residents the Senate budget ensures that the Commonwealth will be as prepared as possible for the next difficult hour.

The legislature will now appoint a six member conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget before sending it to the Governor for his final approbation.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.