Massachusetts Senate to debate $39.5B state budget plan


BOSTON >> The Massachusetts Senate began consideration Tuesday of a $39.5 billion budget that would hold the overall increase in state spending to about 3 percent while providing additional funding for schools and public colleges and universities.

What was anticipated to be several days of debate in the chamber opened with Senate Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Karen Spilka calling the spending plan for the July 1 fiscal year "balanced and fiscally responsible." The Ashland Democrat said the budget makes key investments in programs impacting children and families, and also earmarks more than $200 million for the state's reserves — better known as the "rainy day fund."

Spilka, however, also reminded senators they must work within the limitations of state revenues.

"We'd like to fund everything possible, but clearly we have only one pot of money," she said. "It is difficult ... to fulfill all of the needs."

The Senate plan calls for $4.63 billion in state aid to school districts, about $46 million above what originally was proposed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and $10 million over the amount contained in a budget the House passed by last month.

Spending on the five-campus University of Massachusetts system would be boosted by more than $20 million over the current fiscal year and an additional $24 million for the state's community college and state university system.

Spilka also highlighted efforts to help homeless families, including $100 million to provide vouchers for rental housing.

Included among more than 1,000 amendments proposed to the Senate budget was a plan to bring Massachusetts into compliance with REAL ID, a federal program that sets new requirements for driver's licenses and other identification cards. Without the change, a current Massachusetts driver's license would not be valid identification for entering secure federal facilities or eventually for boarding domestic flights at U.S. airports.

The federal Department of Homeland Security granted Massachusetts an extension until October to implement REAL ID, and Baker is among those pushing for compliance.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Republicans appreciated that the budget includes no tax increases, but urged continued fiscal restraint despite the state's solid economic performance recently.

"We all have a sense of uncertainty about what the future may or may not hold," said Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg ruled out of order some two dozen amendments offered by Tarr, including several proposed tax reductions and one calling for a permanent summer sales tax holiday. The Democratic leader said the amendments could not be debated because of a constitutional requirement that bills seeking to increase or decrease tax revenues originate in the House of Representatives.

Once the Senate approves a final budget, a six-member conference committee will be appointed to resolve differences between the House and Senate plans.


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