The $32.4-billion spending plan approved by the House early Thursday morning increases spending on local aid, education and eldercare, while cracking down on electronic benefit abuse and illegal immigration.
At exactly midnight Thursday, House members voted 150 to 4 to approve their spending plan for fiscal 2013, with four Republicans dissenting. The passage came after a contentious debate among Democrats over changes made to the program that allows welfare recipients to use an electronic benefit card to get access to their benefits.
Several members of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team were among the 33 Democrats voting against the plan that calls for banning recipients from using cash benefits to buy, among other things, alcohol, cigarettes, and pornography. But the changes were approved when 122 lawmakers, including 33 Republicans, voted in favor of the proposal.
The Senate will take up its own budget proposal in May. The chambers will then negotiate any differences before sending a compromise package to Governor Deval Patrick in time for the next budget year, which begins July 1.
DeLeo said Thursday that his budget maintains the state’s commitment to strong fiscal management that was affirmed by recent upgrades to the state’s credit rating. “It’s just another follow-up,’’ he said.
DeLeo said his intention to crack down on electronic benefit card fraud was not directed at those who legally use the program. “There are not any type of penalties if you do not commit fraud,’’ he said. “We’re not cutting benefits at all.’’
On immigration, the House budget includes increased penalties for driving without a license and for forgery and greater verification of legal residency for government benefits. Representative Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who leads the House budget committee, said many state agencies have already been increasing their verification practices.
Both DeLeo and Dempsey defended their dependence on closed meetings and late-night debate that characterized the three-day budget process, which continued into the night Wednesday.
Dempsey said many lawmakers met behind closed doors because it was more logistically feasible, allowing more of them to speak on a variety of topics.
He said individual members had multiple opportunities to have their concerns heard.
“We are very process oriented in terms of being inclusive,’’ he said.
When asked why so many issues are debated out of public view, Dempsey said members of the public can air their concerns at hearings that preceded the actual debate, as the budget was being compiled.
He said they can also weigh in by contacting their own representative.
In an appearance on WTTK-FM radio Thursday, the governor, whose own budget plan did not include changes to the electronic benefit system, said he supported the overall concept of improving its controls. But he stopped short of saying he would approve the House-passed proposal.
“No one has been more focused on eliminating abuse in the EBT program as we have . . . [but] the program is important,’’ Patrick said. “It’s the way forward for the most vulnerable.’’
The governor said his administration has uncovered about $11 million in fraud in the program that costs taxpayers about $400 million a year. But he said he does not believe fraud is more extensive than investigators have already found.
“As someone who experienced welfare as I was growing up . . . we are serious about [ending] fraud and abuse; its splashback is on the overwhelming majority of good people who are using these programs in good faith,’’ he said. “I’m not convinced it’s as widespread as the amount of debate we have given to it.’’
Patrick said he wants to have a current user of the program or someone who has relied on the system for help in the past to be part of the debate about the future of the electronic benefit program.
“We do have a lot of people who have not actually walked in those shoes talking about it,’’ he said. “It would be helpful to have someone who is dealing with poverty every day.’’Material from the State House News Service was used in this report. John Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Noah Bierman at email@example.com.