BOSTON (SHNS) – As a team of House and Senate negotiators sit down this week to begin hashing out different versions of the annual budget, there are at least a few areas where senators may be rooting for the House’s approach to prevail.
Now that both branches of the Legislature have signed off on nearly $50 billion spending plans for the fiscal year that starts July 1, a conference committee of six lawmakers is set to begin meeting Wednesday to produce a final compromise budget.
When the Senate debated its budget in late May, some senators were already looking ahead to this process, and opted not to push for votes on amendments that mirrored items already in the House budget but left out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s version.
During their closed-door talks, the budget conferees, led by Ways and Means chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, will decide how to fund hundreds of line items financing the operation of state government and choose which House and Senate spending priorities and policy measures to include or cast aside.
Senators adopted 514 amendments across their three days of budget deliberations, tacking on $93.3 million in additional spending and 104 new policy sections, according to a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation tally. On a handful of occasions, senators who withdrew their amendments before a vote said they were doing so with an eye towards the idea nonetheless becoming part of the negotiations.
Sen. Jo Comerford, withdrawing her $20 million amendment aimed at helping victim-services organizations make up for federal funding cuts, said she did so “because I know that the Senate will support this conference, and I know we will make it through thanks to the great advocacy on the House side.”
Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler pulled her proposal to create a pilot program expanding eligibility for low-cost ConnectorCare health insurance plans but urged “that the proposal, which was included in the House budget, receive strong consideration by our conferees during the budget conference committee.”
Sen. Michael Moore offered an amendment to boost funding for an early education rate reserve from the Senate’s $25 million to $60 million. The House’s bill funds that line item at $70 million, including $10 million dedicated to grants for providers for costs associated with personal child care.
Moore said after withdrawing his amendment that he looked forward to “reflecting the sentiment of the Senate and working with the House in conference committee to address the important funding issue.”
The willingness to leave particular issues in the hands of the budget conferees may be a reflection of the state’s rosy financial outlook — lean times can force tough decisions about where to put the money, but when there’s plenty of cash to go around, negotiators can pursue the easier terrain of agreeing to both branches’ funding priorities.
Last year, as tax collections surged ahead of expectations, Michlewitz and Rodrigues agreed in their final fiscal 2022 budget to increase tax revenue projections for fiscal 2022 by $4.23 billion, to $34.35 billion. The added flexibility allowed the conference committee — rounded out by the same four lawmakers who complete this year’s lineup, Reps. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Todd Smola and Sens. Cindy Friedman and Patrick O’Connor — to fund accounts across the board at the higher level recommended by either the House or the Senate, adding roughly $300 million in spending.
Last year’s conference committee also agreed to boost funding for some accounts beyond what either branch had approved, including an additional $17 million for the Workforce Competitive Trust Fund, $18 million for career-technical institutes, and $9.5 million for one-stop career centers.
With a month remaining in fiscal 2022, the state has already collected $36.969 billion in tax revenue so far this year, well above the conference committee’s $34.35 billion upgrade from last summer. Fiscal 2022 revenue projections have been bumped up two more times — the latest benchmark stands at $37.666 billion — and budget negotiators could revise fiscal 2023 projections upward from the $36.915 billion revenue estimate used to craft the spending plans.
Aside from ensuring it will get funded in a final bill, there are other, more symbolic reasons the Senate could choose to insert a House-backed item into its budget as well.
Sen. John Keenan unsuccessfully sought to convince his colleagues to approve a pair of his amendments by arguing that putting them in the bill would show the affected populations that they are a priority to state government.
“I know that there is oftentimes in this process give-and-take between the House — the House may file something, the House may appropriate to a certain level, and the Senate may appropriate to a different level, and oftentimes those details are worked out [in] the conference committee process, but this amendment … is something that I feel shouldn’t be left to negotiation,” Keenan said, pitching a funding boost for community-based day and work programs within the Department of Developmental Services.
“Helping people with developmental disabilities should not be part of the negotiation process,” he said. “The House has funded, we should fund, and those that rely on the services and those that need those services should know that both the House and the Senate agree.”
Though the House and Senate budgets (H 4701, S 2915) have similar bottom lines, the conferees will nonetheless have a slew of differences to iron out, including competing approaches to early education and care funding.
Other discrepancies, highlighted by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center in its analysis of the spending plans, include the Senate’s $32 million more in unrestricted local aid, the House’s $110 million for another year of universal free school meals, and different language around making phone calls free for people incarcerated in prisons and jails across the state.
The budget conference committee’s first formal meeting Wednesday comes a little more than three weeks before fiscal 2023 dawns on July 1. A typical practice on Beacon Hill has been for the governor to file a one-month interim spending bill to keep state government running, allowing the six lawmakers to stretch their budgetary dealmaking into July.
Gov. Charlie Baker will have 10 days to review lawmakers’ spending plan once it reaches his desk.
Asked Monday if he expected a budget to be in place before July 1, House Speaker Ron Mariano shrugged and said, “I don’t know,” drawing a laugh from Senate President Karen Spilka.