State lawmakers are poised to vote Monday on a budget that would boost spending on the troubled Department of Children and Families to lighten caseloads for social workers, put new money toward drug addiction treatment, and increase support to cities and towns that have felt the pinch in previous years.
The $36.5 billion spending blueprint, a melding of earlier versions, was finalized Sunday night, a mere 30 hours before the new fiscal year begins. The plan introduces no new taxes or fees, but relies on $250 million in one-time revenues, including about $54 million in casino licensing fees that might evaporate if voters repeal the state’s casino gambling law in November. It also draws $140 million from the state’s main reserve account, the rainy day fund.
If both House and Senate lawmakers approve the spending proposal, as expected, it will go to Governor Deval Patrick for his signature. A spokeswoman for the governor said Sunday night that the administration had not yet reviewed the latest version of the spending plan. But it is unlikely to cause the same rancor as last year when the Legislature and the governor battled over tax increases and transportation spending.
“Every budget has its own characteristics,” said state Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the Barre Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “What we continue to see with the opiate crisis in Massachusetts and trying to address what we have experienced with the Department of Children and Families this year, those two things have really leapt to the forefront.”
The DCF has faced withering criticism from lawmakers and advocates for inferior management and overwhelmed case workers since the agency acknowledged in December that it had lost track of a Fitchburg 4-year-old who, despite being under its care, had not been visited since April 2013. His body was found earlier this year on the side of a highway.
The plan boosts agency funding by $37 million, with an eye toward reducing the number of cases each social worker must juggle and funding new technology for the agency, which came under further fire earlier this year when it misplaced a faxed report that warned of possible harm to an infant who later died.
With overdose deaths rising, state Representative Brian S. Dempsey, the House budget’s chief architect, said addressing substance abuse was “a top priority.”
The spending plan includes $10 million to help provide 10,000 substance abusers with treatment services, lawmakers said Sunday night. And it calls for increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse heroin overdoses, while spending $5 million to boost counseling at public schools.
The budget also ramps up some funding for community colleges and allocates an additional $40 million to the University of Massachusetts. UMass trustees voted earlier this month to freeze tuition and mandatory fees for the upcoming year, but were relying on additional state funds to do so.
Spending on local aid, which cities and towns use to pay for services such as firefighting and law enforcement, would increase by $25.5 million if this budget becomes law. That’s a shift from the plan proposed by Patrick in January, which level funded that spending for cities and towns, prompting an outcry from local officials.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association , called the blueprint released Sunday “a very positive budget for communities” and “a step forward for cities and towns.”
He lauded the increase in local aid, as well as the more than $250 million the budget devotes to what is known as the Special Education Circuit Breaker, which funds special education programs in towns and cities statewide.
Beckwith said money devoted to regional school transportation will further help municipalities.
The plan also adds $15 million for early education programs to expand access to preschool for low-income children, an initiative that Patrick has championed. And it includes about $7 million to boost funding for rental vouchers to help families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Much of this budget, as with previous years’, is consumed by fixed costs such as $13.4 billion in Medicaid-related spending and $2.4 billion in debt service.
While touting the proposals in the bill, legislative leaders defended the $250 million in spending from one-time sources, including reliance on licensing fees for casinos that may never be built. The budget also counts on projected revenue from a planned slot parlor.
Dempsey, the House budget chief, defended the spending plan as fiscally sound, saying it devotes more money to pay off the state’s significantly unfunded pension liability four years earlier than previously planned.
And, he noted, the rainy day fund would still have $1.2 billion at the end of the fiscal year.
Some Republican legislators said they had not yet had a chance to review the legislation Sunday night, but one had a positive take on the bill.
“It does raise spending, but what I liked is it doesn’t rely on new taxes or fees to do it,” said Senator Richard J. Ross, Republican of Wrentham, who was on the committee that hammered out the compromise between the two chambers. “I think it’s a responsible budget.”
Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning research group, called the budget modest.
He said it “makes smart, targeted investments in areas like higher education, strengthening child welfare services and addressing substance abuse prevention and treatment.”
However, he said, it is “not a dramatic attempt to address some of our biggest challenges at the scale of those problems.”
Once the budget bill reaches Patrick’s desk, he will have 10 days to review it. A temporary stop-gap budget is already in place to cover the period between when the current fiscal year ends at midnight Monday and when the new budget becomes law.