Metro

State Senate passes $38.1 billion budget

Measure backs Baker stance on $1.8b shortfall

The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a $38.1 billion budget early Friday that one lawmaker said will “lift all families and invest in our future.”

In its broadest sweep, the Senate budget matched the contours of the spending plans passed by the House last month and proposed by Governor Charlie Baker in March, though there are differences in emphasis.

The spending plan, which was approved 40-0, is set to be reconciled with the House’s budget in a conference committee with members of both chambers before going to the governor.

Advertisement

While the most contentious Beacon Hill debate over the Senate budget centered on the creation of a special board to oversee the troubled MBTA — an amendment that was OK’d by the chamber — and questions of taxation, senators spent much of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday talking about less controversial amendments on the chamber’s floor or hashing out agreements behind closed doors.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

But the Senate’s final product — like that passed by the House — embraced the core of Baker’s analysis: that the state is facing a projected $1.8 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and state government must increase spending at a lower rate than it has.

The spending plan proposed last week by the Senate’s budget-writing committee — before the amendments — would have increased spending by about 3.1 percent.

Senator Karen E. Spilka, chairwoman of the Senate budget-writing committee, said in a statement that the spending plan “builds on the themes and investments of the Senate Ways and Means recommendations to lift all families and invest in our future.”

She said she is proud of the “spirited, thoughtful debate this week.”

Advertisement

On Thursday night, as midnight drew closer and budget deliberations remained unfinished, some senators gathered for vanilla and chocolate ice cream in the office of Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg. Bleary-eyed staffers and lobbyists made their way around the State House.

The passage of the Senate’s budget tees up the final acts of a fiscal drama — increasingly grim projections of the gnawing budget gap faced by the state — that has slowly unfolded since Baker was elected the Commonwealth’s 72d governor in November.

Differences with the House on an array of items must be reconciled before the budget sees final legislative votes and goes to Baker for his action. The Senate, for example, is set to fund the University of Massachusetts and the state’s Office of Dam Safety at slightly higher levels than the House-passed spending plan.

Baker could sign what he receives into law or veto all or parts of it.

Among the amendments that the Senate adopted this week are: more money for grants to councils on aging and higher funding for Prisoners’ Legal Services, and changes to a law on how long courts have to retain some old files.

Advertisement

Senators unanimously approved an amendment allocating up to $6.3 million to expand eligibility for subsidized home care — help for people who need assistance with the activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing.

Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, an association of nonprofits that help elderly people stay in their homes, said the amendment would mean people who make up to $35,000 a year, instead of the current $27,000, would be eligible for assistance.

“It expands the reach of home care for lower-middle class families who need a subsidy to afford it, and it slows down their need for costlier care, such as nursing homes,” he said, adding that the amendment uses federal dollars to pay for the eligibility expansion.

Senator Barbara L’Italien, an Andover Democrat and lead sponsor of the amendment, said expanding home care is “certainly more compassionate” and also “more cost-effective” than nursing homes.

Another amendment that senators approved this week — with much more controversy — would increase the state’s earned income tax credit, which benefits low-income workers, increase the personal exemption available to all taxpayers, and aim to pay for it by freezing the state’s income tax at its current rate of 5.15 percent.

Under current law, the tax rate is set to incrementally decline to 5 percent if the state meets certain economic growth thresholds.

In 2000, voters passed a ballot initiative knocking the rate down from 5.85 percent to 5 percent in steps. The first ticks downward took place at the beginning of 2001 and 2002. But then the state Legislature, facing rough economic times, froze the final tax cut and set up a much slower diminution.

Baker supports expansion of the earned income tax credit, but proposed pairing it with an elimination of the state’s controversial film tax credit. The governor opposes freezing the income tax rate.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.