Facing a massive shortfall, the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed a $38.1 billion state budget on Wednesday that aims to reduce the skyrocketing growth of health care costs, spends a bit more on early education, and does not raise taxes or fees.
The budget would increase spending by about 3 percent, a smaller rise than in recent years and a nod to the projected $1.8 billion gap the state would face without any action in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Much of the spending is devoted to relatively fixed costs such as MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program — about 40 percent of the budget is set aside for that program, which serves the poor and disabled.
Still, the House budget hews to Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to slow the rise in health care spending. That’s done, in part, by making sure everyone using MassHealth is actually eligible to receive benefits and by pushing off some payments from the new fiscal year to next, which officials call “cash management.”
Spending on education for young children is one area in which the overwhelmingly Democratic House’s budget veers somewhat from the Republican governor’s blueprint for how to use taxpayer money. The spending plan passed Wednesday includes $15 million more than Baker’s for early education programs, House aides said. That includes a higher level of funding for Head Start than proposed by Baker as well as more money to move kids in low-income families off a wait list for subsidized education and care.
“The House of Representatives’ budget demonstrates that through fiscal prudence and thoughtful investments we can achieve sustainable economic growth and set the standard for aiding citizens facing adversity,” Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement.
Brian S. Dempsey, chairman of the chamber’s budget-writing committee, said the spending plan “strikes the right balance between fiscal discipline and smart investing in the programs and services that matter most to our constituents.”
Earlier this month, DeLeo and Dempsey released their initial budget proposal. Representatives subsequently filed more than 1,000 amendments to it.
This week, those amendments were dispatched over three long days of mostly private deliberations.
Representatives aimed to get prized items — from funding for local nonprofits to reducing the sales tax to 5 percent (rejected) to clarifying restrictions for some outdoor billboards on land owned by the MBTA (adopted) — added to the massive piece of legislation.
Whatever qualms Republican and Democratic representatives may have with the final package, they did not show it when it came time for Wednesday’s key roll call vote: 158 to 0.
But passage in the House is only an intermediary step in a much longer process of the people’s elected representatives hashing out how to spend their constituents’ money. The Senate is set to soon propose and pass its own spending plan. Then the two chambers will hash out their differences in high-stakes negotiations.
One area poised to be a major flashpoint is the House’s five-year suspension, for the beleaguered MBTA but not the rest of state government, of a law critics say is designed to curb outsourcing of services by creating an onerous process to do so. Senate leaders have expressed deep skepticism about that suspension. Backers say the current law, which requires a review of the savings from proposed outsourcing before it’s initiated, simply protects the taxpayer.
Once the chambers have agreed to a compromise measure, the bill will head to the governor. Among Baker’s options: signing it into law or vetoing all or part of it.