In the coming week, the Senate will take up the budget for Fiscal 2015. We will vote on amendments proposed to the Senate Ways and Means draft budget and then send the budget to a conference committee to resolve differences with the House budget.
This is a year where the major parameters of the budget are set in stone and there is little controversy over the total size of the budget:
- There is no real contemplation of tax law changes — up or down.
- The major elements of local aid were defined in March.
- There are no pending reform proposals for the perennial elephant in the room — health care (which we took on in the previous session).
- The budget makes relatively modest reserve fund draws, likely to be turned into deposits if revenues develop positively.
The State House News quoted Mike Widmer of the Mass Taxpayers Foundation opining about the Senate Ways and Means draft as follows:
It’s very close to the House. When you step back and look at these two budgets they’re remarkably similar, one of the most similar budgets coming out of the House and Senate in all my time and the bottom line is very close,” Widmer said, calling the approach a “reasonable” balance between spending increases and reducing the state’s reliance on one-time money and reserves for budget balance.
There are some modest but important new initiatives in the Senate budget which I do support — most notably, increases in funding for:
- the Department of Children and Families
- substance abuse services
- affordable housing vouchers
- early education
For more of an overview, see the analysis from Mass Budget.
The Senate Ways and Means budget draft does pretty well on secondary local aid accounts, but I will be supporting amendments to further benefit my communities.
- The draft follows the House in raising charter school reimbursements to $80 million from $75 last year. This is an important account for Boston and I am co-sponsoring Sonia Chiang-Diaz’s amendment to bring this amount up to $113.4 million, which would allow the state to fully fund its commitment to ease transitions to charter schools. This is one of the accounts that the legislature sometimes underfunds at the start of the year to allow a nominally balanced budget on the implicit premise that standing revenue estimates are low and that revenues will actually come in that will allow full funding later. (Other accounts that are often treated this way are snow removal, the bar advocate budget, the Group Insurance Commission and MassHealth.) For example, in the supplemental budget we did last week, we added $27.6 for charter reimbursements. The large cities that typically benefit most from the charter reimbursement account can make use of late year funds, but they can plan better, like all agencies, when they have money up front.
- I am also cosponsoring an amendment to double support for homeless student transportation reimbursement, which the draft places at $7.4 million (same level as the House).
- The senate draft increases the special education circuit breaker account to $260.4 million — $2.9 million above the House budget and $7.9 billion (3.1%) above FY14’s level. The three year increase from FY12 would be a cumulative 22.2% under the Senate proposal. This account is always a top priority of mine as it benefits all of my communities substantially. Watertown, in particular, supports high special education costs, and I have filed an amendment (following what Rep. Hecht offered in the House) to address Watertown’s particular situation.
Although much of the budget is fixed, the Senate’s budget week will be interesting — in fact, there are 948 amendments pending in the Senate (of which I have filed roughly my fair share — 26). All pending amendments can be viewed at the legislature’s website. The Senate clerk typically updates the site in near real time as the Senate acts on amendments.