House panel calls for $33.8B Mass. budget

House panel takes wraps off Mass. budget, calls for smaller spending increase than governor

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- A state budget plan unveiled Wednesday by a key House panel calls for about $1 billion less in total spending in the next fiscal year than proposed earlier by Gov. Deval Patrick.

The $33.8 billion budget announced Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee would boost state spending by nearly 3.9 percent over current levels. Patrick had sought a 6.9 percent increase in total spending for the 12-month period starting July 1.

The Legislature rejected Patrick's call for $1.9 billion in new taxes, including a hike in the state income tax that would have paid for major new initiatives in transportation and education.

The full House separately approved a transportation finance plan on Monday that would raise about $450 million in the next fiscal year by adding three cents to the gasoline tax, boosting cigarette taxes and some business tax changes.

The spending plan announced by lawmakers on Wednesday does not seek any tax increases beyond those contained in the transportation bill.

"We certainly respect the governor's proposal, we respect his vision, we applaud his leadership on the issues," said Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the Ways and Means panel. "But we take a different approach."

While the House budget does not approach the same level of education spending as sought by the governor, Dempsey said it significantly increases funding for higher education. The plan would direct $39 million in new funding to the University of Massachusetts, $29 million for community colleges and $15 million for the state's other public universities.

UMass officials said Wednesday that the additional funding would allow for a two-year freeze on increases in tuition and student fees.

The spending plan would increase state support for school districts to $109.5 million, well below the governor's proposed $226 million hike that he said would guarantee a minimum $25-per-child increase for each district.

The House panel also did not include Patrick's call to invest $131 million in early education and child care to help relieve a waiting list that exceeds 30,000 for state services. The House instead called for creation of a 10-member special commission to study and make recommendations for early education.

Noah Berger, president of the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the House plan represents a "missed opportunity" to improve education in the state.

"The governor had proposed a fairly forward looking effort to invest significantly in education to improve our economy in the long term and help families who are trying to get a quality education for their kids," Berger said.

Patrick's top budget official, Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor, said in a statement that the administration was pleased with the boost in higher education but concerned about a lack of funding for early education and youth violence prevention programs.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, called the House budget responsible in light of continued sluggishness in the economy.

"Revenue growth has been anemic in this economic recovery," said Widmer, whose group had been skeptical of the governor's proposed tax increase.

Both the House plan and the one proposed by the governor calls for withdrawing funds from the state's reserves, better known as the "rainy day fund." Lawmakers call for using $350 million, compared to the $400 million that Patrick sought to tap from the fund. In either case, the state would still have a balance of slightly more than $1 billion in the fund after the transfer.

The House budget — scheduled for debate later in the month — would boost unrestricted local aid to cities and towns by about $21 million, the first increase in four years, but about $10 million less than proposed by the governor.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said lawmakers however would use an existing formula for distributing local aid, rather than a new formula proposed by Patrick. That would provide a more stable approach for cities and towns, he said.

The proposed House spending plan includes steps aimed at ending abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards for welfare recipients by tightening legibility standards and requiring photo IDs on the state-issued cards. The budget would also create an independent office within the state's human services agency to address potential fraud in public assistance programs.

Recent reports from the state inspector general and auditor had pointed to millions of dollars in benefits going to people with unconfirmed eligibility. Republican lawmakers had been pushing for reforms in the EBT system.

Rep. Brad Jones, the House minority leader, offered some praise to Democratic leaders for a budget that would spend less than Patrick and called for reforms in government.

"However, the plan offered today relies too heavily on revenue found in the recently passed transportation finance bill, and House Republicans will continue to oppose this fiscally irresponsible approach," Jones said.

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