House leaders released a proposed $36.2 billion budget Wednesday that increases funding for drug treatment, higher education, and local aid, but rejects Governor Deval Patrick’s push for new taxes and trims some of his priorities, including early education programs.
The budget represented a cautious and incremental blueprint, with some targeted spending increases but no jarring policy shifts that could anger key constituencies in a year when members of the House are gearing up for reelection this fall.
“It’s a budget that takes small, positive steps guided by good values, but doesn’t face some of the challenges we’re facing,” said Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a liberal research group.
The spending plan was also a small, though not unanticipated, setback for the governor, who has seen his call for higher taxes on candy and soda repeatedly torpedoed in past years by House lawmakers and made little attempt to push for them this year. As Patrick prepares to leave office in January, many lawmakers say the governor’s clout on Beacon Hill has waned.
“Surprise!” Patrick said with a sarcastic chuckle, when asked about yet another one of his proposed tax hikes being rejected by his fellow Democrats in the House leadership.
Any talk of taxes could be politically toxic for lawmakers in an election year, and Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he had heard strong opposition from small business owners.
DeLeo defended the budget as fiscally sound and said it protects the most vulnerable while boosting spending in key areas.
He said that the University of Massachusetts would receive enough funding to freeze tuition and fees. To combat the upsurge in opiate-related overdoses, drug programs would also see a funding increase, including additional money to distribute naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of overdoses, to first responders in 10 cities and towns hard hit by heroin use.
The state Department of Children and Families, which has faced intense criticism for poor management and overwhelmed case workers, would see an increase of $32.6 million, in line with what Patrick proposed when he released his budget blueprint in January. The House budget would also tighten rules for DCF case workers and foster parents.
Case workers would have to obtain a certified social worker license within three years under the House plan.
DCF would also receive $200,000 to perform more comprehensive background checks on prospective foster parents, who would be ruled ineligible if they or anyone else in their household has been convicted of child abuse or a violent crime. To help ensure timely medical screenings for children, DCF would be required to hire licensed medical professionals at each of its regional offices and screen children entering department care within 72 hours.
A recent state audit found that children entering the foster care system were not receiving initial medical screenings within 7 days, as required by the agency’s current rules. As a result, the audit said, children could have suffered from undetected health problems, trauma, and injury.
Another area that would benefit under the House plan is local aid, which cities and towns use to pay for basic services such as police officers and firefighters. The House blueprint would add $25.5 million for that account, which would not have seen any increase under the budget Patrick proposed in January.
Patrick said there was “a lot to like” in the House plan, but criticized House leaders for increasing early education programs only by $7.5 million, half the amount he had sought. Patrick said House leaders “shortchange, in my view,” that program, a signature issue for him and for other Democrats across the country.
Some advocates pointed out areas in their field that had been cut. Lewis Finfer, an organizer of the Youth Jobs Coalition, said youth jobs and violence prevention programs would be sliced by $13.5 million, which would end funding for 1,300 jobs for young people.
Republicans held their fire on the plan, with some expressing satisfaction that it included no new taxes. But they railed against House Democrats for adopting a rule that prohibits legislators from introducing amendments related to welfare or local aid. The “gag order,” as critics called it, could insulate Democrats from having to take uncomfortable votes on those hot-button issues.
“The Democrats silencing debate on EBT reforms and local aid increases at the behest of the speaker smacks of election-year folly, and the residents of our cities and towns deserve better,” said Kirsten Hughes, chairwoman of the state Republican Party.
House leaders defended the rule, saying they allowed debate on those issues during earlier sessions.
Overall, the budget is propped up by $260 million that the state expects to bring in only during the upcoming budget year. That one-time money includes a $140 million withdrawal from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, less than the $175 million withdrawal proposed by Patrick. The fund was designed for use during a fiscal emergency. This year, tax revenues are coming in briskly, even exceeding expectations.
House leaders defended the use of the emergency fund, saying there would still be $1.2 billion left that in that cushion at the end of the budget year, more than in most other states.
The House is scheduled to debate the budget later this month. The Senate will then follow with its own proposal. Both blueprints must be reconciled and sent to the governor by the start of the new budget year on July 1.