Senate budget focuses on early education, mental health, local aid
Does not include Baker tax cuts
THE STATE budget proposal released by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday largely hews to the same ideology as the plan adopted by House budget writers: Avoid tax cuts, while putting excess money toward investments in areas such as early education, mental health care, and housing.
“Despite two-plus years of uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing and widespread financial instability, we’re happy to say that the Commonwealth remains in a strong fiscal position for now,” Senate President Karen Spilka said at a budget briefing with reporters. “We will only succeed as a Commonwealth if we all rise together, and this budget ensures that no one gets left behind.”
Massachusetts is awash in money, between federal recovery aid and tax revenues that are coming in far higher than anticipated.
The Senate Ways and Means budget proposes spending $49.68 billion in fiscal 2023, which is $2.07 billion more than the 2022 budget and $1.45 billion over the governor’s proposal. The House passed a $49.7 billion budget in April, though it is likely the Senate will exceed that amount after senators add amendments on the floor.
Spilka has said senators will consider tax relief separately from the annual budget process, and Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues echoed that sentiment. Rodrigues said the Senate budget, like the House’s, adopts a proposal to conform the state tax code to the 2022 federal tax code rather than, as is currently the case, the 2005 code. “The rest of the tax package…we will be debating and discussing in the near future,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues said he thinks Baker “did propose a number of good ideas,” and members of the Senate will have other good ideas. “I think when we talk about tax relief, we’re going to focus on working families, and what provides the greatest amount of money into the pockets of working families,” Rodrigues said. “There are lots of ways to do that. We’ll look at all of them.”
It is an open question whether a tax proposal can be crafted and passed before the July 31 end of formal legislative sessions.
Two big policy initiatives included in the House budget – providing free phone calls to prison inmates and providing universal free school meals to all students – were left out of the Senate’s budget. That means it will be up to a conference committee to decide whether those policies make it into the final version. “I have no objection to it,” Rodrigues said when asked about both policies. “We just haven’t included it in our budget.”
The House also used its budget bill to ban child marriage, a policy the Senate has passed previously but which is not included in its budget proposal. Rodrigues said that was due to his philosophy of focusing on fiscal matters in the spending plan – though senators could introduce policy amendments on the floor. “We’re pretty light on policy,” Rodrigues said. “I focus on budget and fiscal matters in the budget.”
The Senate budget does adopt a policy included by both the governor and House eliminating all probation and parole fees, a move criminal justice reform advocates say will make it easier for people released from prison to reintegrate into society.
Like the House budget, the Senate prioritizes greater investments in early childhood education. While the House focused exclusively on providers who serve children who get state subsidies, the Senate broadens that. The Senate budget would increase rates for subsidized providers, but would also spend $250 million to continue a pandemic-era grant program that is available to all early education and care providers to cover operational and workforce costs. The so-called C3 grants, for Commonwealth Cares for Children, had been federally funded but that money will expire in June. The Senate wants to continue offering the grants through the end of 2022. Overall, the Senate would increase spending on childcare by $309.6 million over the current fiscal year, for a total of $1.13 billion.
“We’ve seen some robust revenues over the last year or so, and we wanted to ensure we share those with our local communities, many of which are struggling making ends meet at their level,” Rodrigues said.
While the House had proposed spending $500,000 expand abortion access, the Senate would create a new $2 million grant program to fund security efforts – including staff and infrastructure improvements – by abortion providers. Rodrigues compared it to an existing grant program that funds security at religious and nonprofit institutions. “We wanted to mirror a program for our reproductive health clinics to ensure they remain a safe place for the people who work there and for the patients who utilize their services,” Rodrigues said.
The Senate increases spending on college scholarships by about $20 million compared to the House.
The budget includes over $1 billion for mental health, which is a priority of Spilka’s. That includes a loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals, and more money for mental health clinicians, screenings, and services in schools and public colleges. It also includes $15 million to build capacity for mental health care – staffing and beds – to address the problem of psychiatric patients waiting for days in the emergency room because no treatment bed is available.
The Department of Transportation would get a $50.2 million funding increase, for a total of $453.3 million, which Rodrigues said will let the department staff up in anticipation of receiving a large amount of federal infrastructure money. “We need to have the staffing and personnel at MassDOT ready and available to accept this money and put this money to work fixing roads and bridges around the Commonwealth,” Rodrigues said. The MBTA would get a $60 million increase, for a total of $187 million, to support operations and make safety improvements. The Boston Globe reported Monday that the Federal Transit Administration is taking an increased oversight role due to concerns about safety at the MBTA.
The Senate budget would increase cash welfare payments by 10 percent for the third consecutive year, giving a family of four another $83 a month. It would use $3.5 million to create a new State Center on Child Wellness and Trauma operated by the Office of the Child Advocate and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
The budget would spend $900 million on housing, which includes a major expansion of rental assistance programs compared to pre-pandemic as well as an increase in the amount of rental assistance available to each family. The budget increases spending on substance use treatment by $33.7 million compared to fiscal 2022, including money to open 10 new recovery centers. It invests $75 million in nursing homes, much of it to increase rates and allow higher staff salaries.
Senate staffers have recently been pushing to unionize, and the Senate budget aims to address one of their concerns by requiring the Group Insurance Commission, which provides public employee benefits, to allow a state employer to offer a new employees health insurance coverage as of their employment start date, rather than having a waiting period.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee approved releasing the budget in a voice vote during a remote executive session without much discussion. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr abstained from voting, which he said was “not an indication of disapproval.” “I’m still wading through it and understanding its nuances,” Tarr said.Tarr later in the day issued a statement that he appreciates the budget’s investments in areas like local and educational aid, mental health, and the environment. “Yet, the budget fails to include significant measures to translate the Commonwealth’s financial position into deserved tax relief for our residents who are dealing with recovering from the pandemic, the impacts of skyrocketing inflation, and the heavy burden of fuel prices at historically high levels,” Tarr said.
The budget will be debated on the Senate floor beginning Tuesday, May 24. It will then go to a conference committee of House-Senate negotiators to develop a final version.