Smokers will need to shell out $1 more for a pack of cigarettes. Drivers will need to hand over another 3 cents per gallon at the pump. But students at the University of Massachusetts will be spared an increase in their tuition and fees.
These are some of the everyday financial implications built into the $34 billion spending plan approved by lawmakers, and sent to Governor Deval Patrick on Monday for his approval. The budget relies on about $500 million in higher taxes on tobacco, gas, utilities and certain computer services that businesses purchase.
The plan would provide some of the largest spending increases seen in years, including a $30,000 pay increase for judges, and is designed to put the state’s ailing transportation system back on solid footing. It also includes changes aimed at cracking down on welfare fraud.
Patrick has not said whether he will sign the spending plan or send it back to the Legislature with changes. He made no public statements about the budget on Monday, after returning from a week visiting his newborn grandson in California.
He and legislative leaders canceled their regular weekly meeting as the two sides continue to wrangle over how much money to funnel into transportation. Whatever the outcome of those negotiations, all parties have tentatively agreed on the 3 cents per gallon gas tax hike.
The governor, however, has raised concerns that the plans approved by the Legislature do not generate enough money to shore up the transit system. Patrick has not said how he proposes to bring in even more money, but his aides have indicated that one option could involve asking legislators to cancel plans to remove the tolls on the western portion of the Turnpike. They are currently slated to come down in 2017.
Democrats in the Legislature argued that the tax increases are sufficient to rebuild the state’s transit systems and are relatively modest, compared with the $1.9 billion tax hike that Patrick initially requested in January.
“We were a little more conservative, shall we say, in terms of how much revenue we decided to raise,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, told reporters Monday. “We kept it at a level where, I think, it’s reasonable.”
Republicans, who are vastly outnumbered in the Legislature, objected to the tax hikes, however, arguing they could hurt the state’s economic growth.
“A gas tax increase that grows with inflation will be a continuing burden for drivers, and a new tax on computer and software services threatens to obstruct the growth of one of our most promising sectors, sending jobs to our competitor states,” said Senate Republican Leader Bruce E. Tarr.
Despite those concerns, lawmakers easily approved the budget on largely party-line votes of 122 to 29 in the House and 36 to 3 in the Senate. The budget depends on a separate transportation bill that contains the tax increases and which continues to be a source of controversy.
The spending plan would pump an additional $39 million into the University of Massachusetts system, avoiding the need for tuition and fee hikes for the upcoming academic year. That fulfills a campaign led by the university’s new president, Robert L. Caret.
In a statement, Caret called the funding increase a “major step” toward his goal of having the state and students share equally in paying for the cost of higher education. Currently, students shoulder more than half of the burden.
Massachusetts judges won their $30,000 salary increase after complaining that they had not received a pay hike since 2006, and that their salaries rank 48th out of the 50 states, when adjusted for cost of living.
The pay hike was not controversial in the Legislature because it was part of a 2008 recommendation from a commission led by business leaders.
Supreme Judicial Court justices, who currently earn $145,984 annually, would be paid $175,984 a year, an 18 percent bump. Salaries for district court judges would jump from $129,694 to $159,694, a 21 percent bump.
James G. Collins, a juvenile court judge who is president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference, which lobbied for the increase, said judges often work in courtrooms where the police officers testifying on the stand and the lawyers arguing before them earn more than they do. He said judges believe “the job deserved and merited this level of compensation,” and that it “makes sense when one takes a look at the responsibilities of the position.”
While judges would see their pay rise dramatically, some 30,000 early educators who work in day-care centers across the state would receive a much more modest 3 percent pay increase. The day-care workers, who earn $23,800 a year, on average, will earn an additional $714 a year.
William J. Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education & Care, said he was grateful that lawmakers provided some additional money for the low-paid workers. “Would we like to do better? Of course,” he said Monday. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Overall, the budget calls for about $25 million more for the early education system, far short of the $130 million increase that Patrick had requested as part of his goal of providing universal access to prekindergarten for every child in the state. Legislators poured cold water on that request, arguing that the state agency that oversees the early education system has not been spending taxpayer money efficiently. Lawmakers set up a commission to study ways to tighten the bureaucracy.
Responding to public anger over reports of welfare fraud, the budget requires photographs on Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Lawmakers, who plan to take up more sweeping changes to the welfare system in the fall, argued the photos would prevent trafficking of the EBT cards. They also set up a task force to police the welfare system for abuses.
DeLeo pointed to reports of welfare recipients using benefits to buy tattoos and bail bonds. “It’s not my position to hurt poor people,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. This is about stamping out fraud and abuse that’s been so well documented.”