New Massachusetts budget bill OK'd as some programs due to run out of money


BOSTON — When Thursday began, the House and Senate seemed to be at loggerheads over a midyear spending bill that each branch passed with slight variations last week.

By mid-afternoon though, with legislative leaders warning that inaction would mean some state accounts running out of money Friday, a new bill was birthed from the backrooms of Beacon Hill and sailed through both chambers en route to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk with no debate.

The new roughly $168 million spending plan took the form of a further amendment (H 4146) to the Senate's amendment (S 2196) to the House's original supplemental budget (H 4116), and includes $18 million for deficient accounts for the county sheriffs, $14.9 million for the Department of Children and Families and $41 million for emergency family shelter and services programs.

"There are some specific items here that are time sensitive, such as $26.1 million in total for [Committee for Public Counsel Services] caseload deficiencies. Those amounts will run out actually tomorrow, April 1," Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Karen Spilka told her colleagues on the Senate floor. "There are a few other time-sensitive [accounts] that will run out either tomorrow, April 1, or in a couple of weeks, April 15, or soon thereafter. So it's imperative upon us to do this and therefore that's why we're taking it up in a very quick manner."

Earlier Thursday, soon after the House introduced the new version of the spending bill, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey implored the Senate to take action as quickly as possible or risk letting accounts run dry.

Dempsey last week ushered a $168 million spending bill through the House. Members were asked to not to amend the proposed bill, "given the severity of this situation" and in hopes of getting to to the governor's desk quickly, Dempsey said.

"I am proud that the House acted responsibly last week, and again today to make sure that we are able to meet our obligations as a commonwealth," he said in a statement.

Spilka said the Senate, too, acted responsibly to ensure state agencies have the money they need to provide their services.

"The House did it, sent it over to us, we got it today and we are taking it up forthwith," she said. "So we are acting very timely and responsibly to cover these caseload deficiencies."

After Spilka told her fellow senators, "We need to get this to the governor's desk very soon," the Senate enacted the bill on a voice vote. The House had already enacted the measure during its informal session Thursday.

The bill agreed to Thursday differs from the versions approved last week, including the complete removal of a section dealing with federal funding of home care.

The Senate adopted an amendment last week to instruct the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to submit an application to the federal government for an amendment to its Medicaid program that will expand federal matching funds for seniors who are getting home care but have not drawn federal matching funds before because they are not considered nursing home eligible.

According to Mass. Home Care, as much as $19 million in new federal revenue could come from that federal amendment.

"We were offering them a way to bring in $19 million annually in new federal money and it's like twisting arms," Al Norman, executive director of Mass. Home Care, told the News Service.

The House bill also included the home care provision, but rather than saying the Baker administration "shall" submit the application, the House version said the administration "may" submit the application.

"It died over one word. It only took one word to scuttle this and leave $19 million lying on the table," Norman said. "There's a lot of room between 'may' and 'shall' but this is why we have legislatures that deliberate; they come up with something rather than give up."

State tax collections are trailing budget benchmarks by $123 million this fiscal year and the Baker administration is counting on a surge in tax collections to cover state spending in the remaining three months of fiscal year 2016. Administration officials and legislative leaders have said they are confident the revenues will materialize.


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