BOSTON (State House News Service) - The $32.3 billion annual budget plan released by House leaders on Wednesday presented a mixed bag for Gov. Deval Patrick who saw several of his key reform initiatives rebuffed by lawmakers in an election-year budget that significantly boosted local aid for cities and towns, but also slashed funding for human services, corrections and youth jobs.
"A major difference between this budget and the governor's recommendation is our commitment to local communities," House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey said.
Dempsey's plan proposes to crack down on abuse of electronic benefit transfer cards used by public assistance recipients, close a mental health hospital in Taunton, repeal the ban on gifts to doctors from pharmaceutical companies and improve curriculum coordination between community colleges. But the House to increase local aid by $105 million more than the governor's budget drew much of the focus at the capitol Wednesday.
The budget would increase Chapter 70 education aid to cities and towns by $164 million over its current level to $4.15 billion, and would guarantee the return of $899 million in unrestricted aid to municipalities, including $65 million that Patrick only proposed spending on local aid if a surplus existed at the end of the current fiscal year.The House budget also includes $221.5 million for the special education circuit breaker, an $8.4 million increase. The plan includes $45 million for regional school transportation, and appropriates $11.3 million to cities and towns for the first time to offset the expense of a federal mandate highlighted by Auditor Suzanne Bump requiring communities to cover the cost of transporting homeless students out of district.
"What's striking about the budget is the increase in local aid given the fiscal realities," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "The increase is paid for in these reductions in other accounts across state government. I'm not necessarily faulting them, but it certainly stands out."
Widmer called it "an open question" whether departments like the Department of Correction will be able to operate with the level of funding proposed by the House, but called the shifting of resources to local aid a matter of priorities.
"Local aid is almost always a priority and history shows it's more of a priority in the even number years. I think that's been true for decades, so it's no surprise," Widmer said, alluding to November election.
Despite a nearly identical bottom line, the House rejected Patrick's attempt to generate $260 million in revenue through higher taxes on cigarettes and candy, balancing the budget instead with a mixture of "little things," as Dempsey put it.
Dempsey said tax reforms such as the governor's plan to adjust the corporate excise tax factor to pick up $10 million in new revenue would put an additional burden on businesses at a time when the economy is rebounding, albeit slowly.
"By not adopting these proposals, we have reaffirmed our commitment to responsible budgeting by keeping the operating budget within our current means, and do not shift the burden of balancing the budget onto the shoulders of Massachusetts taxpayers," Dempsey said.
The House budget proposal relies on $522 million in one-time revenues, including a $400 million draw on the state's "rainy day" account to close what Dempsey described as a $790 million gap. The House is also counting on $175 million in budget cuts for agencies and departments, $134 million in department revenue growth through increased fee collections, and $81 million in other one-time revenues.
"Basically we looked at existing revenues in terms of trust accounts, we require additional procurement, we require renegotiation of leases, we look at some federal opportunities that with the benefit of time were not available when (the governor's budget) was filed," Dempsey said when asked how he balanced the budget without the revenues sought by Patrick but with a nearly identical bottom line as the governor's.
"It's really a combination of things and a lot of little things we were able to put together," he continued.
The House adopted a budget order on Wednesday setting a Friday amendment deadline, giving members just two days to review and file recommended changes to the budget. With plans to begin debate a week from Monday, the House put a restriction on amendments specifying that any proposals dealing with gaming would be ruled out of order.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones applauded the increase in local aid, and said Republicans would take the next two days to analyze and file amendments. "The proposed budget contains some positive aspects, particularly since it does not contain any new taxes, as promised by Speaker DeLeo. I am pleased that multiple Republican-led initiatives, including proposals derived from the GOP Jobs Package and increased oversight for government led assistance programs, have made their way into the budget
presented today," he said in a statement.
Gov. Patrick's budget chief Jay Gonzalez said he was "encouraged" by the investments proposed by the House in education and reforms for community colleges, but added, "I don't think this proposal does enough to address youth violence or closing the achievement gap."
Municipal leaders were cheering what amounted to a $105 million increase in local aid for cities and towns above what was recommended by Patrick.
"All across the board, from education to community programs, this is a strong, effective, outstanding budget," said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
One the signatures reforms in Patrick's budget – a plan to overhaul the governance of the community college system to better coordinate curriculums and meet the needs of employers – remained partially intact.
After college presidents resisted ceding budgeting control to the state, the House presented a plan that would direct the commissioner of higher education to work with community college presidents to develop a new performance-based funding formula in time for next year's budget cycle.
The governor would also get to designate the chair of each community college board, and the Board of Higher Education would establish guidelines for selecting new college presidents with a voting member to assist local boards in the selection of campus presidents.
Dempsey called it a "hybrid plan" that respects local autonomy, and also better positions the 15 community colleges to meet workforce needs with a $47 million workforce training grant fund, capped at $12.7 million a year.
"For four months, the Coalition for Community Colleges has been making the case that the need for strong community colleges has never been more urgent, and today, the House budget shows that legislative leaders have heard the call," said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation, one of the founders of the business-backed Coalition for Community Colleges.
The House plan rejected Patrick's attempt to close the Bay State Correctional Facility in Norfolk, instead proposing to find savings by soliciting new bids for catering and other services.
Dempsey also said the House plan funds the Committee for Public Counsel Services at its current staffing level, rejecting Patrick's proposal to increase the percentage of cases handled by public defenders for indigent criminals from 25 percent to 50 percent.
Lew Finfer, of the Youth Jobs Coalition, said he planned to work with members to file amendments to restore $2.1 million in funding cuts for youth jobs that would eliminate as many as 1,200 jobs for teenagers. The House budget also zeroed out a new $10 million program called Safe and Successful Youth, and reduced Shannon Grant anti-gang funding from $8 million this fiscal year to $2 million.
"It's disappointing because those are huge cuts in both public safety and youth jobs," Finfer said
The Massachusetts Bar Association also criticized an $8 million cut in funding for the Trial Court, which judges, including Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, has warned could jeopardize the state's ability to administer justice.
"A fully functioning court system is the foundation of the rule of law in Massachusetts, and that foundation will continue to erode as budget cuts continue," MBA President Richard Campbell said in a statement. "The 42,000 citizens who enter our courts every day are faced with court backlogs, and an insufficient number of court officers and reduced public hours so clerks can catch up on paperwork."
The House budget plan proposes a crackdown on abuse of the $415 million electronic benefit transfer card program by banning the spending of welfare benefits on firearms, gambling, concert tickets, cosmetics, professional services, strip clubs and pornography, travel services, health clubs, tattoos, jewelry, rental goods, and the payment of any tax or fee, including bail.
The bill also makes the unauthorized possession or transfer of an EBT card a criminal offense.
Gary Blumenthal, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers, said human service providers were pleased to see the House budget make strides to restoring funding for family services that has been slashed during the recession.
Dempsey said the House plan would increase funding for rental vouchers by $10 million, helping to move 920 of the more than 1,400 families living in subsidized hotels and motels into more permanent housing. The budget also includes an $8.4 million increase in the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to help low-income families stay in their homes.
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