Senate budget proposes more funds for education than House, governor
The Massachusetts Senate upped the ante on K-12 education spending, unveiling a budget proposal Tuesday that would put tens of millions more dollars toward public elementary and secondary schools than either Governor Charlie Baker or House lawmakers have proposed.
The $42.7 billion spending plan is the latest indication that Beacon Hill is serious about revamping the state’s outdated education funding formula — and a sign that Senate lawmakers could push to commit more resources for struggling urban districts than their House colleagues.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said the chamber’s proposed “record” funding is not just lip service. It would add $268.4 million to the state’s current contribution to public school funding, officially known as Chapter 70 — the largest one-year hike in the last two decades, according to Senate officials.
“When I say record, I mean record, unprecedented investments,” said Spilka.
The increase, which would push total Chapter 70 funding to $5.18 billion, is $68 million more than Baker’s budget increase for state aid to K-12 schools next year.
The Senate’s proposal is about $50 million more than the House’s budget would contribute to local school districts in the form of Chapter 70 aid.
House officials say they’re contributing money in other ways that bring their total state aid to $236.5 million, or about $32 million less than the Senate. Most notably, the House budget would create a $16.5 million reserve fund set aside for increasing aid to low-income students once the Legislature completes its overhaul of the broader education funding formula.
But Senate officials contend their budget represents the most resources to the neediest districts of all the proposals on the table. For example, a school district with the highest concentration of low-income students would receive $4,589 in Chapter 70 aid per student under the Senate plan, versus $4,207 per student under the House proposal.
A 2015 legislative commission found that the state’s 1993 formula used to calculate the minimum cost to educate students in each district failed to adequately account for the true costs in four key areas: health insurance, students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students. Updating the formula is the goal of the broader legislative effort underway in the House and Senate.
Michael J. Rodrigues, the Senate budget chair, described the education spending figures as a “substantial down payment” on the larger education formula overhaul, which all the key players acknowledge will mean increasing the amount of aid the state sends to local school districts.
“We didn’t want to get out in front of” those working on the education bill, Rodrigues said. “These are very much initial investments . . . in those areas.”
It’s not the only piece of the Senate’s education spending plan that raised eyebrows. The proposal also bars the University of Massachusetts from raising tuition or fees for in-state students in the next academic year, while giving the system a $39 million funding increase, up to $558 million.
“I can’t remember the last time we’ve invested this many new dollars in the UMass system,” Rodrigues said. “There should be no need to increase tuition.”
It’s the same amount Baker and the House also tabbed for UMass. But university leaders said they would need about $10 million more to avoid a 2.5 percent tuition hike, and argue that most of the lawmakers’ proposed increase — about $34 million — is eaten up by collective bargaining costs. Freezing tuition without more funding could lead to millions of dollars in cuts, President Martin T. Meehan and the system’s chancellors wrote in a letter to senators Tuesday.
“This decision came with no warning or apparent effort to understand its impact on university finances,” they wrote.
The Senate, which has convened a task force to examine the state’s tax code, did not bake any sweeping revenue increases into its budget bill.
It did, however, include two tax proposals that Baker pushed in his own budget plan but the House discarded last month: It would target drug manufacturers with a 15 percent levy on gross receipts of opioid sales in Massachusetts and extend taxes to e-cigarette products.
In the latter case, the Senate goes further than the governor by proposing a 75 percent tax on all vaping products, far above Baker’s proposed 40 percent levy on liquid and gel products and a 13.7 percent excise on the sale of e-cigarette devices. The Senate estimates that its proposal would generate $12 million, with all the money going toward a trust fund designed to increase health coverage for state residents.
Rodrigues, a moderate Democrat in his first year as the Senate Ways and Means chair, discounted the need for broad-based tax hikes this year, but said the Senate wouldn’t restrict revenue-generating amendments from debate later this month either.
“We think there’s adequate revenues in the state’s coffers without raising new revenues to fully invest in our priorities,” the Westport Democrat said.
The Senate did not accept all of Baker’s tax plans, though. Like the House, it dropped the administration’s proposal to accelerate how the state collects sales tax on its largest vendors, which Baker estimated would generate more than $300 million in one-time revenue.
Senate leaders also followed Baker’s lead and included a proposal aimed at curbing the cost of prescription drugs in the state Medicaid program, called MassHealth. The measure would give MassHealth officials more authority to negotiate prices directly with drugmakers, and to refer certain expensive drugs to the Health Policy Commission, a state watchdog agency, for review.
The commission could then refer certain drugs to the attorney general’s office for further investigation. Senators largely followed the language in Baker’s proposal.
Last month, House members approved a weaker version of the governor’s plan, after lobbying from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a group that represents biopharmaceutical companies. MassBio officials said they would also urge the Senate to modify its proposal, which they called “drastic” and “harmful.”
Senators will debate their plan later this month and will have to reconcile differences with the House before sending a final version to Baker for the fiscal year starting July 1.