Senate leaders unveiled a $38 billion budget Tuesday that would hold the line on taxes while spending a bit more on early education, worker training, and efforts to maintain the state’s edge in the innovation economy.
With the state staring down a $1.8 billion fiscal gap, Senator Karen Spilka, chairwoman of the chamber’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, told reporters the spending plan is only the start of a years-long effort to strengthen Massachusetts families.
“This just lays the foundation,” she said, “because there are some tight budgetary constraints that we have to live within.”
The Senate budget is largely in line with Governor Charlie Baker’s spending plan and the $38 billion budget approved by the House of Representatives last month. Response to its spending provisions was muted after the budget was released Tuesday afternoon.
But an addendum to the bill making changes to MBTA governance, first reported by the Globe Tuesday morning, generated sharp reaction throughout the day.
The measure would give the governor a stronger hand at the T, allowing his transportation secretary to appoint the agency’s general manager. And Senate leaders have argued the move gives the administration plenty of authority to make real change.
But the legislation does not give the governor much of what he is asking for: a fiscal control board to oversee the T for three to five years, more power to privatize services, and greater leeway to raise subway, bus, and commuter rail fares.
Eileen McAnneny, executive director of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the Senate’s approach is “woefully inadequate.”
“There are serious financial challenges plaguing the T,” she said. “And it looks like [the Senate is] putting the burden on the administration to change everything without giving them the tools they had requested.”
But Rafael Mares, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said some of the tools Baker is asking for could do damage.
The governor, for instance, wants to lift a cap on MBTA fare increases. But Mares said the law, which limits increases to 5 percent every two years, works.
The Senate is expected to begin debate on the budget bill next week. And with little drama in the proposal itself, much of the focus is on what sort of amendments arise .
The state constitution requires that all “money bills” originate in the House. That means, at a minimum, that the Senate cannot propose a tax increase on its own. It can only respond to a proposal that begins in the lower house.
The House budget, passed last month, did not include any tax increases. But it did include an alteration to a tax credit that would affect state revenue. That, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg argues, made the measure a “money bill” and opened the door to tax maneuvers on the Senate side.
While the Senate budget bill released Tuesday did not include higher taxes, a handful of senators have suggested they will propose amendments that would alter state tax policy, adding a bit of uncertainty to the budget process.
Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said he is planning to file amendments that would close corporate tax loopholes. Senator Ben Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, said he may press for a rise in the state’s earned income tax credit, which benefits low-income workers.
The Senate budget, if roughly hewing to the governor and House plans, does include some different points of emphasis.
There is $1.2 million for a pilot program to provide training and internships for those who have been out of work for over a year. “This is an area of our workforce that has been forgotten,” said Spilka, the Senate Ways and Means chairwoman.
The long-term unemployed, she said, often lack up-to-date skills and are hamstrung by gaps in their resumes. The hope is that the training and internships offered by the program would remedy both problems.
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, has been a forceful advocate for the state’s high-tech industries. And the budget includes several initiatives designed to boost the sector, including $1.5 million for a program designed to incubate the nascent “big-data” industry.
The Senate budget also spends $12 million on new early childhood education vouchers. Officials say the money, about $7 million more than the House allocated in its spending plan, would move an estimated 2,000 low-income children off the state’s waiting list for subsidized care.
The budget won praise from advocates for the elderly. And Lew Finfer, an organizer at the Youth Jobs Coalition, applauded the Senate for restoring funding for a youth summer jobs program the House trimmed. The jobs, he said, “create some sense of hope and opportunity” for low-income children, he said.
The Senate proposal also boosts funding for the state trial court by nearly $21 million. Baker offered less money in his spending blueprint, drawing a rebuke from the state’s highest-ranking judge, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who warned of hundreds of layoffs.
Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Baker’s plan would “bring justice to a grinding halt,” and he commended the Senate for providing more money.
There were some critics, though.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, has been pressing state budget writers to dedicate 1 percent of spending to environmental programs. He said the Senate plan only gets to 0.6 percent.
Baker press secretary Lizzy Guyton said in a statement Tuesday the governor is still reviewing the Senate budget but is pleased that it “mirrors his view that state government must live within its means and protect taxpayers.”
She included a jab, though, at the Senate’s proposal for fixing the T. The governor, she said, maintains that his own “comprehensive plan . . . is the best way to restore the transit system for riders after this winter’s complete breakdown.”
Once the Senate passes a spending blueprint, the House and Senate will hash out their differences before the Legislature sends a final budget to Baker. The governor could sign the measure or veto parts or all of it.