Massachusetts House unanimously approves $39.56 billion budget
BOSTON >> The Massachusetts House passed a $39.56 billion fiscal 2017 budget Wednesday afternoon, shipping its spending plan to the Senate which plans in May to debate its vision of what state spending should look like beginning July 1.
The budget was approved after two-plus days of deliberations marked by light and sporadic debates, with most of the decisions made in a House ante-room where lawmakers were instructed to go and talk to Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey about their thousands of amendments.
Lawmakers added $86 million in spending to the bottom line through nine "consolidated" amendments compiled by House leadership and passed unanimously.
The final budget passed 156 to 0 with three Democrats not recorded.
In closing remarks where he thanked members and staff as votes were being tallied, House Speaker Robert DeLeo boasted at the House's record of producing budgets that are "on time and in balance."
Last year, House and Senate members agreed on a final budget a full week into the fiscal year and Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed $162 million, as the legislative and executive branches differed on the bottom line.
With the additional state spending tacked on through the consolidated amendments, the House budget finished the week about $10 million higher than the $39.55 billion spending bill submitted by Baker in January. This year the House was about $4.7 million more frugal than last year in adding to the Ways and Means bottom line through consolidated amendments.
Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance Executive Director Paul Craney, whose organization has frequently used budget-week roll call votes to target incumbent Democratic lawmakers, criticized the process.
"If you blinked, you could have missed it. In just about a week's time, House leadership unveiled its version of the 2017 budget, 160 house members submitted more than 1300 amendments, no more than 20 meaningful roll call votes were taken, and the budget was passed on to the Senate. Seems like a little more deliberation is due for a $40 billion budget," Craney said.
House members agreed to pack into the budget scores of earmark amendments designed to pay for local projects. If the Senate does not agree to those earmarks, they could still be included in the final budget if a six-member conference committee is amenable.
Governors over the years have often frowned on earmarks, which limit the discretion of executive branch officials to make spending decisions.
Aside from what industry officials describe as a hospital tax and lawmakers classify as an assessment, the budget does not include any new taxes or tax increases. The House rejected an amendment to raise the gas tax by 3 cents per gallon and avoided a vote on reducing the sales tax to 5 percent by voting to study that issue instead.
On Wednesday, the House added to the budget a measure sponsored by Republican leadership that would bring Massachusetts into compliance with the federal Real ID Act. Some Democrats objected saying they were caught off guard by the major policy decision.
The Real ID Act, a federal post-2001 anti-terrorism initiative, requires states to begin issuing secure and compliant forms of identification that for many residents will replace their current drivers' licenses.
Baker administration officials briefed legislative leaders last month on a bill the governor filed last October to bring Massachusetts into compliance, warning that without action this year residents might have to start carrying their passports to access federal buildings or travel through domestic airports by January.
The budget provides "targeted investments" to support the early education workforce, including a $15 million salary reserve, $2 million for access to early education programs and $18.6 million for kindergarten expansion grants.
The spending plan approved Wednesday also includes $159 million more in local aid than the current year's budget.
"I think it's a good document, local aid was prioritized in a way that satisfied a lot of members on my side of the aisle. That was one of the number one priorities across the board," House Minority Leader Bradley Jones said. "It goes off to the Senate now and we'll see what the Senate does. Hopefully we continue to make progress toward having a budget to the governor's desk in time so he can exercise his judgment."
House Republicans sought to sequester up to $100 million in excess state tax revenues to send to cities and towns, but were rebuffed by Democrats.
The fiscal 2017 budget approved Wednesday will fund 45 new addiction treatment beds at Taunton State Hospital.
The Legislature has increased funding for substance addiction services by more than 65 percent since fiscal 2012, according to the speaker's office.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council expressed disappointment that the budget, in the end, funded the MCC at $12 million, down $2 million from fiscal 2016. The council said more than 100 lawmakers had signed on to an amendment to boost support to $17 million, but were rebuffed by House leaders who added a more modest $2 million through the amendment process.
"Once again citizens across the Commonwealth joined a broad-based campaign to restore state support for the arts, humanities, and sciences," said MCC Executive Director Anita Walker. "We came up short in the House. But we know that increased state investment is the only way to truly capitalize on the economic, social, and educational potential of the nonprofit cultural sector. So we will redouble our advocacy efforts through the Senate budget debate and beyond."
Matt Murphy contributed reporting.
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