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Senate’s $36.3b budget mirrors Mass. House plan

Despite an improving economy and forecasts of increased tax collections, state Senate leaders unveiled a cautious, $36.3 billion budget Wednesday that is propped up by $250 million in one-time revenues.

Those revenues include $140 million from the state’s main reserve account, the rainy day fund, which was designed for use only in budgetary emergencies. The budget would also use $53 million from the anticipated sale of a casino license and $46 million from delaying certain corporate tax deductions.

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Senators defended their use of the one-time funds to stitch together the budget, saying it will help them expand critical mental health, child welfare, and early education programs without raising taxes on candy and soda, as Governor Deval Patrick proposed.

The budget closely mirrors the version passed earlier this year by the House and must be sent to Patrick for his approval by the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

The $140 million withdrawal from the rainy day fund is less than the $200 million used to fill gaps in this year’s budget. It will leave about $1.2 billion in the reserve at the end of the budget year.

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Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said that since the economic recovery has been slow, it is “reasonable under the circumstances” to tap the reserve, but warned that it should not happen again next year.

“When you’re in an economic recovery, we should actually be adding to the rainy day fund,” he said. “We obviously want to build up as large a fund as possible for a future recession.”

About half of the $36 billion budget is consumed by fixed costs such as debt service, Medicaid, prisons, and pensions and health care for public employees and retirees. Those necessities left limited room for lawmakers to spread new money around. But they did bump up several key areas.

The University of Massachusetts would receive additional funds to freeze tuition and fees for students next year. Three-thousand children from low-
income families would get help paying for preschool, under a $17.5 million increase for early education programs.

The troubled Department of Children and Families would receive a $39.9 million increase, to beef up staffing and technology. Mental health programs would receive more money to allow the Worcester Recovery Center to open 52 new beds. About 1,000 poor families would receive rental assistance. Local aid — which helps pay for basic services such as police officers, firefighters, and trash collectors — would see a $25 million hike.

Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the Senate budget chief, said the blueprint reflects an economy that is gradually rebuilding after the 2008 recession, when a historic downturn forced the state to make deep cuts.

Unlike those grim years, the choices this year involved whether to give programs increases of 2 or 4 percent, rather than the 6 or 8 percent many advocates wanted, he said.

“It’s a recovering economy, albeit a modest recovering economy,” Brewer said. “It does present a different set of challenges than a hemorrhaging economy.”

Still, not every program will see more money.

While the Senate boosted funding for one youth jobs program, another similar program was cut, as were three other youth violence prevention initiatives, said Lew Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

Finfer said he hopes to have the money restored when senators debate budget amendments next week.

While spending at UMass increased, the Senate plan devotes about $32 million less than the House proposal to state universities and community colleges, Widmer said.

Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the Republican leader, defended the budget, saying it “invests in important priorities such as special education, substance abuse, child welfare, and public safety.”

“In addition, the committee has made laudable strides in the proposal to reduce its dependence on the stabilization fund and increasing taxes,” he said in a statement.

Noah Berger — president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning research group — had a more mixed reaction. He applauded the spending increases on early education, drug treatment, and other programs.

But he expressed disappointment that senators shunned higher taxes, which he said could have funded more robust expansions.

“Ultimately, this is a fiscally responsible budget and one that takes small, smart steps forward on addressing some very big challenges,” Berger said.

The Senate’s rejection of new taxes was not a surprise. Patrick made almost no effort to push for his plan for higher taxes on candy and soda.

Meanwhile, many lawmakers, who are running for reelection this fall, consider any talk of higher taxes politically toxic. Brewer said his colleagues were simply not interested in touching the issue.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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