Consensus budget ups spending by 6.5%

Measure filed just before 8 p.m., allowing vote on Friday

NEGOTIATORS FROM the House and Senate reached an agreement Thursday evening on a $46.2 billion final budget for fiscal 2021.

Both the House and Senate are planning Friday afternoon votes.

Senate President Karen Spilka said the budget “makes important investments in key areas to steady the Commonwealth and assist our most vulnerable residents as we continue to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The budget, which represents spending growth of 6.5 percent over the current year, is larger than the versions proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker and initially passed by the House and the Senate because conferees chose to adopt most of the major spending priorities of both bodies.

Conferees found the additional money by agreeing to take up to $1.7 billion out of the state’s $3.5 billion rainy day fund – more than either Baker, the House, or the Senate initially anticipated. The state could ultimately use less than that if more federal stimulus money is forthcoming or if tax revenues come in higher than anticipated.

This budget is based on a tax revenue estimate of $27.6 billion, or 6.8 percent less than what the state took in in fiscal 2020. November tax revenues came in 1.5 percent higher than a year ago, which means revenues through the first five months of the current fiscal year are up $142 million, or 1.3 percent.

In an unprecedented circumstance, the state has been operating on a series of temporary budgets since the new fiscal year started July 1, as policymakers watched the trajectory of the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the state economy – and kept an eye on how much stimulus money was coming from the federal government.

The latest temporary budget was scheduled to run out at the end of November, although Baker administration officials said the state had enough money to keep operating for “several days” into December.

At 2:45 p.m. Thursday, Ways and Means chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston and Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport issued a statement saying the two sides had “reached an agreement in principle” on the budget, and their staffs were finalizing the language of the agreement. The budget was filed with the House clerk just before 8 p.m. – which, under House and Senate rules, is the latest time a conference committee report can be filed and still be considered the next day. All six conferees – four Democrats and two Republicans – signed it.

Heading into final negotiations, the House and Senate budget proposals had been unusually similar, in an attempt to move the budget quickly given the circumstances. The two budgets were released and debated in a more condensed time period than is typical, with the Senate Ways and Means Committee releasing its budget proposal while the House debate was still ongoing.

Neither version of the budget included new broad-based taxes. Both versions adopted part of a proposal made by Baker to accelerate sales tax collections and also delayed implementation of the state’s charitable deduction by a year. While the Senate proposed allowing cashless Lottery transactions using a debit card, that language did not make it into the final bill.

The budget does not increase fees on ride-hailing companies. Both the House and Senate have voted for increased fees – the Senate in its budget and the House in a separate transportation bill – but they disagreed on what the increase would look like.

The conference committee budget includes provisions, versions of which were passed by both chambers, to expand abortion access. The bill would let women as young as 16 obtain abortions without parental or judicial consent and would expand access to abortion when a fetus is older than 24 weeks in cases of a “lethal fetal anomaly.” The bill adopts Senate language that includes a broad statement affirming the right to abortion – which senators say would be necessary if the US Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade but some advocacy groups have said is unnecessary.

Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester, who sponsored the Senate version of the abortion access amendment, said several weeks ago that she didn’t know why the House didn’t include the broad statement affirming the right to abortion. “I think they just overlooked it,” she said.

On Thursday, she issued a statement praising the final result. “No matter what happens across the country, the people of Massachusetts will have the right to choose when pregnancy is right for them,” she said.

Both legislative budgets – and the final consensus version – postpone implementation of a new education funding formula for a year, adding only enough money to the existing formula to account for inflation. The final agreement includes a House initiative to create a $50 million COVID-19 student support fund to help schools cover coronavirus-related costs.

The expiration of a statewide eviction moratorium led both bodies to put $50 million more into rental assistance than what Baker had initially proposed. The final agreement also increases the amount of rental assistance a family can get in a year from $4,000 to $10,000 through the end of the state of emergency, and institutes a $7,000 limit for six months after that.

The conference committee budget includes new investments in racial justice, early education, and public health.

The conferees agreed to a Senate plan to create a $50 million racial justice fund for grants to programs in communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. There is a $2.5 million matching grant program for municipalities trying to shift public safety functions to the public health system – for example, finding ways to divert people with mental health problems from police custody to mental health treatment.

On early education, the agreement includes a $40 million fund to pay parent fees for low-income families using state-subsidized childcare; a $25 million fund to support childcare providers and pay for workforce training initiatives; and a $20 million reserve fund to increase rates for subsidized childcare providers.

There is a new $10 million fund for grants to local public health boards and $1 million to develop a vaccine distribution plan.

Conferees agreed to a Senate amendment to let hemp be sold in marijuana dispensaries.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Conference committee reports face an up or down vote and cannot be amended.

Once the budget bill lands on Baker’s desk, he will have 10 days to sign it and make any line-item vetoes. The Democratic-controlled Legislature could override his vetoes with a two-thirds vote.