Thursday May 24, 2012

BOSTON (AP) -- The Massachusetts Senate has begun weighing its state spending plan for the next fiscal year.

Debate on the proposed $32.3 billion budget got under way Wednesday as senators began to wade through nearly 700 amendments.

The debate began with Senate President Therese Murray declaring that the budget is not a "money" bill as defined by the Massachusetts Constitution.

As such, Murray ruled more than a dozen proposed amendments to the budget out of order, including several Republican-backed measures that called for lowering tax rates.

Murray said the constitution defines "money" bills as those that make changes in taxes and revenue, and that those bills can only originate in the House of Representatives.

Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr objected, claiming that courts and previous Senate leaders have allowed the Senate to originate bills that lower taxes, but not raise them.

The Senate voted 33-4 on party lines to uphold Murray’s ruling, meaning there will be no votes on the tax amendments during the budget debate.

During Wednesday’s debate, senators approved amendments that would increase the percentage of speeding ticket fines that go to the Head Injury Trust Fund -- which supports services for people with traumatic brain injuries -- add $100,000 to the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library program, and fully fund the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, which represents low-income adults and children with mental disabilities.


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The Senate also passed a budget amendment that addresses prostitution.

The amendment would create a "pretrial diversion program" to educate and deter first-time offenders caught soliciting or engaging in prostitution.

Individuals charged with human trafficking or participating with an underage victim would not be eligible for the program, which would educate first-time offenders on the effect commercial sex and trafficking has on victims, as well as the associated health risks.

Charges would be dropped against individuals who successfully complete the program.

Supporters say the program will weaken demand and kill supply for prostitution and sex trafficking in Massachusetts.

The House passed its version of the budget last month, and after the Senate completes its work a six-member conference committee will be appointed to iron out differences between the two branches.

The final version of the budget then must be approved a final time by both chambers and sent to Gov. Deval Patrick for his signature.

The current fiscal year ends June 30.