Legislators restore $100 million to state budget
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House lawmakers Saturday restored about $100 million in spending that had been cut from the state budget by Governor Charlie Baker, who has said he slashed $412 million to keep Massachusetts finances in order amid a flat stock market and falling capital gains tax revenue.
During the rare weekend session, legislators voted to reinstate money to boost salaries for early education and preschool teachers, pay for voting programs, and reverse cuts to a range of state offices. The Senate also convened to consider some of Baker's spending vetoes.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the spending plan endorsed by lawmakers remains conservative even with the overrides, noting that money was restored for programs like drug courts, special education, and poor families with children.
"We as a government, obviously, we have an obligation to support these types of services," DeLeo said in a telephone interview. "It is all worthwhile spending matters that help us as a society and as a state."
One vote restored $7.5 million to hike pay for educators of children in government-sponsored preschool programs.
The move was praised by Massachusetts Fair Share, which had pushed to get the money back into the budget.
"This is evidence that lawmakers see the need to invest in education," said Nathan Proctor, state director for Massachusetts Fair Share.
He said the average yearly salary for teachers in the early-education field is $25,500.
"The first opportunity that early education teachers have, they obviously leave," DeLeo said. "Many will go into any other field because we're talking about salaries in the [$20,000 range]."
House and Senate lawmakers also voted to restore $1.2 million in election funding, including money to fund early voting for the presidential election in November.
The inaugural program would let people vote between Oct. 24 and Nov. 4, said Secretary of State William Galvin, the state's top election official.
"This is about helping the voters participate," Galvin said.
Legislators also reinstated $23.5 million for cash benefits for low-income families with children, $7.2 million for services for people with developmental disabilities, and $32,297 for specialty drug courts.
DeLeo said specialty drug courts are helping the state combat the opioid crisis.
"I've been to a couple of courts and seen how well they work," he said. "We have to help them get out of their drug dependency."
Senate lawmakers worked late into Saturday night to restore other spending.
They voted to override Baker's veto of $2.5 million for incentive grants to state universities, $500,000 for preschool planning across the state, and $200,000 to support the Bay State Reading Institute, which provides remedial services to public schools.
The Senate also restored $400,000 for Suicide Prevention Services for Samaritans Inc. They also voted to reinstate $300,000 for prostate cancer research and $150,000 for the Down Syndrome Clinic, both at the UMass Medical Center.
Lawmakers ended the night by voting to restore $400,000 for pediatric palliative care services run by the state Department of Public Health.
In a statement, Baker spokesman Brendan C. Moss said the governor hopes lawmakers take into account "softening revenue estimates" as they consider authorizing new spending increases.
Baker provided a balanced budget plan that reduced spending while boosting funding for education, local aid, and efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Moss said.
In other matters, House and Senate lawmakers passed legislation designed to close the pay gap in the state by holding employers accountable for wage violations proven to have arisen from gender discrimination.
The new bill protects employers from being held liable for a pay discrimination claim if they've undertaken a "self-evaluation" of gender wage disparities in the past three years and can show "reasonable progress" toward closing the gap.
The measure is now headed to Baker's desk.
"This bill will protect women from discrimination in the workplace and close the gender pay gap," Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said in a statement.
The weekend sessions were organized because many lawmakers are expected to be out of state in the coming days for the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday in Philadelphia.
Both chambers plan to meet again next weekend.