Senate goes bigger, bolder on budget
The Senate Ways and Means Committee — now under new management — is in go-big-or-go-home mode, with a fiscal 2020 spending plan for Massachusetts that is bold in many of the places it needs to be.
The bottom line in the committee’s budget, released Tuesday, may be nearly identical to where the House ended up — the initial tally is $42.7 billion. But the Senate went bigger than the House on education funding, bolder on efforts to rein in prescription drug costs, and threw in a couple of new revenue sources the House had discarded.
All of that could make for some contentious budget negotiations between the two branches this summer to get the final version on the books for the July 1 start of the fiscal year.
“Each line item, each number, is much more than just a number,” Senate President Karen Spilka said during a budget briefing. “It is a statement of the Senate’s priorities and our values and what we hold dear.”
Not surprisingly, the budget document takes giant steps on issues related to mental health — a move Spilka telegraphed earlier in the session. Family Resource Centers, designed to help meet the demand for services, would get more funding; so too substance abuse recovery centers and children’s mental health programs. It sets aside $10 million for a new loan forgiveness program for behavioral health workers and for an education program aimed at combating the stigma of mental illness.
But this is the year when all eyes are on education funding, and there the Senate budget did not disappoint. Basic Chapter 70 education aid to cities and towns is $5.2 billion, up $268 million over the current year’s budget and $50 million more than the House allotted. As in the House budget, lawmakers are promising increases of at least $30 per pupil over the current fiscal year.
The real question remains how that money will be distributed under a new education funding formula that is still being worked on by the Joint Education Committee. Mayors in some of the state’s Gateway cities have threatened lawsuits in that regard, but that $5.2 billion — along with more money for special education, for English-language learners, and for the rising health care costs of teachers and other school personnel — actually puts the state on target to meet most of their demands.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues of Westport called the proposal a “substantial down payment” on fully funding the education formula, and so it is. And that makes those threats of a lawsuit from the mayors of Brockton, New Bedford, and Worcester premature.
Boston officials, who are not part of that coalition, also are concerned that none of that additional funding will make its way to public schools here without a change in the formula itself. So what we have here is more a trust gap between state lawmakers and local officials than a funding gap.
One of the bolder moves made by Senate budget writers is to restore the tough approach — proposed by Governor Charlie Baker — to controlling high-cost drugs paid for by the state through the Medicare program. That version was watered down on the House floor after lobbying by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
The Senate would give the Health Policy Commission the power to make public its findings on the price of a drug it is negotiating. It would allow drug manufacturers the right to appeal to an administrative law judge, but ultimately allows for a referral to the attorney general if state officials believe a manufacturer is withholding information.
Senate budget writers also chose to take advantage of two potential new taxes introduced into the discussion by the governor but discarded by the House — a 15 percent tax on opioid manufacturers for products dispensed in the state and a 75 percent tax on the wholesale prices of e-cigarettes and vaping products. The nonrevenue advantages of each levy are also obvious.
Spilka is right. At the end of the day, the state budget is about far more than dollars and cents. It’s a pathway to the year ahead and policies that make sense.
Holding to that sober and fiscally responsible line — even as amendments rise and fall — is the tough part.