Senate budget embraces in-state tuition for undocumented students
Tax relief in ‘same ballpark’ as House; online lottery not included
SENATE LEADERS unveiled a budget proposal on Tuesday that embraces in-state tuition payments for undocumented Massachusetts students, rejects calls for expanding the state Lottery online, and sets aside enough funding for a future tax relief package that is in the “same ballpark” as what the House approved.
The $55.8 billion spending plan, scheduled to be debated next week, will complete the public budget cycle on Beacon Hill. Once the Senate’s budget is approved, a group of six House and Senate lawmakers will meet privately to iron out differences between the two budgets and then send the final document on to Gov. Maura Healey, who can accept or veto sections of the bill.
At this point in the process, differences between the House and Senate versions become the focal point of discussion. The two budgets, for example, steer significant resources to the same broad categories, although the precise spending numbers vary. On some issues – free phone calls at state prisons and county jails, for example – the two branches are in perfect alignment.
The House and Senate both are splitting the estimated $1 billion in revenue expected to come in from the millionaire tax 50-50 between education and transportation. Their proposals share some commonality, but each branch sets different priorities.
Both branches set aside $20 million for Mass Reconnect, a free community college program proposed by Healey. The Senate also sets aside $15 million to buttress the program and $20 million for a special free community college pilot program to train more nurses. “We’ve heard from every provider around the state – there’s just not enough nurses,” said Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues of Westport.
Both the House and Senate address school infrastructure issues, but in different ways. The House proposed steering $100 million to a program called Green School Works to finance the installation of energy saving infrastructure at schools. The Senate proposes giving $100 million to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to give it some flexibility in addressing COVID-induced cost overruns of some 30 schools around the state.
In transportation, the Senate proposed $100 million for regional transit authorities, which provide bus service outside the MBTA service territory. That amount was $30 million more than what was proposed by the House and the governor.
The Senate directed that $15 million go toward a six-month pilot of fare-free buses at every RTA and, like the House, included $5 million to help launch a lower MBTA fare for low-income residents. Rodrigues said the two efforts should yield valuable data on which approach works better or whether different approaches should be used at the MBTA and RTAs.
The Senate budget includes a change in state law that would allow undocumented students living in Massachusetts to attend state colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition rates. The issue has been kicking around Beacon Hill for decades, but now appears to be gaining momentum.
Senate President Karen Spilka indicated the in-state tuition issue is a priority for her for both humanitarian and practical reasons. “While Massachusetts leads in so many areas in education,” she said, “we are falling behind other states, including the red states, in offering what is not only the right thing for these immigrant students but good for our atmosphere of inclusion, equity, and overall success. Twenty-three states plus DC already have this. We need to be competitive as well.”
Rodrigues said the Senate budget does not include House language that would allow the state Lottery to expand online. Healey has endorsed the House approach, but Rodrigues said Senate leaders were not convinced. “We think it needs more time to be vetted,” Rodrigues said.
The Senate budget chief said the Senate is not going along with that change. He said the lone House change copied by the Senate was to exempt revenues from the millionaire tax from the tax cap calculation. He said his reasoning was based on the fact that voters, in passing the millionaire tax, directed that all that money go to education and transportation.On Monday, Spilka was coy about the Senate’s plans for a tax-relief package, but Rodrigues was more forthcoming on Tuesday. He said the Senate budget assumes a tax cut package of $575 million in fiscal 2024, which he said was in the “same ballpark” as the House. The House tax cut plan phases in some tax cuts over time; it would cost $654 million in fiscal 2024, rising to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2026.
Rodrigues declined to say what would be in the tax relief package, but said the Senate will act on it shortly after passing the budget. He said the Senate’s decision to deal with the tax relief package after passing the budget was not designed to gain any leverage in negotiations with the House.