Mass. Senate leaders unveil $50 billion budget; tax break talks in ‘near future’

​​Matt Stout | Boston Globe | May 10, 2022

Massachusetts Senate leaders on Tuesday released a $50 billion budget plan that pours hundreds of millions of more state dollars into child care but, like their House counterparts, included no proposed tax breaks or cuts. Amid surging inflation, one top senator said his colleagues have not yet had “serious discussions” about the contours of a potential package.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka last week called for the Senate to pursue a tax relief bill following its budget debate, indicating any plan, should it emerge, would likely not surface until at least June. But the prospect of one continues to hover over Beacon Hill’s annual budget, a version of which the House passed last month and typically isn’t finalized until after the next fiscal year begins on July 1.

Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chief, told reporters Tuesday that the Senate would focus any proposal on putting “money back into the pockets of our working families.” Still, the Westport Democrat gave no indication how closely a proposal could hew to the more than $700 million in tax breaks Governor Charlie Baker has sought amid both record state revenues and 40-year highs in inflation.

“I really haven’t analyzed the good, the bad, the ugly of any of the governor’s tax proposals,” Rodrigues said. He added that he expects to begin discussing potential legislation “in the near future’ but said senators have yet to have “serious discussions about any sort of tax changes.”

“The governor doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas,” Rodrigues said.

In its place, the Senate unveiled a $49.7 billion spending plan that Spilka said seeks to ensure that “no one gets left behind.” It increases direct aid to local school districts by nearly $500 million, helping to fulfill the promises made under the state’s new school funding formula passed in 2019, while hiking spending by tens of millions of dollars on state colleges, substance use treatment, and transportation.

Similar to the House’s initial proposal, the Senate seeks to spend at least $1.4 billion more than what Baker proposed in January.

The increases include what Senate leaders called an additional $60 million for the MBTA, which would receive $187 million on top of revenue it collects from a portion of the state’s sales tax and would go to support “necessary improvements for rider safety,” according to Senate leaders.

The Federal Transit Administration told MBTA officials last month that it is “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the T and will take on an “increased safety oversight role” of the transit system following a rash of passenger deaths and injuries on the system.

How the additional money the Senate proposed is spent would be left to the MBTA’s board, Rodrigues said.

One of the largest increases in the Senate plan is reserved for the state’s child-care system, with nearly $310 million in new state spending over the current fiscal year. The vast majority of the increase — $250 million — would go toward the Commonwealth Cares for Children program, which makes grants available to all child-care providers, regardless of whether they receive other public subsidies. Senate officials said Tuesday that to date, the program has been funded by federal aid.

The extra state spending the Senate proposed would partly replenish the program, ensuring grants run through at least the end of December, according to Rodrigues’ office.

Yet, it also falls short of the $450 million in full-year funding that Baker had pushed lawmakers to embrace. And despite Senate leaders promising that the funding would help “transform the child care system,” Rodrigues acknowledged it effectively is a “continuation” of one-time help on which many providers are already leaning but would end in June without additional funding.

The House did not include a similar proposal in its budget plan, opting instead to hike spending by roughly $70 million, including tens of millions more aid to help bolster child-care worker salaries.

A recent legislative commission’s study of Massachusetts child care that estimated it would cost $1.5 billion annually to put a raft of recommendations into place to overhaul the state’s early education system, which already has some of the most expensive child-care costs of any state in the country.

In the wake of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that indicated the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Senate budget also creates a new line item to support abortion services with $2 million in new funding. The House had set aside $500,000 in its plan.

The Senate is expected to debate and add to its budget plan in two weeks, when its bottom line will likely grow further. The version released Tuesday did not include several policy proposals the House had sought, including one requiring all jails and prisons make phone calls free for prisoners and their families — something only one other state currently mandates — or another dedicating $110 million to extend a free school meals initiative currently covered by an expiring federal program.

But it doesn’t mean those provisions will not ultimately survive. The state is awash in money, with tax revenues in April alone surging past predictions by more than $2 billion, potentially giving lawmakers flexibility to adopt the chambers’ different priorities, should they opt to, instead of having to choose some Senate and some House favorites.

Rodrigues, who will likely lead the chamber’s budget negotiations with the House, said he, too, has “no objection” to those House proposals, but rather said he sought to limit the number of policy changes his office tucked into the spending plan.

“It is pretty thin,” he said of its policy package.

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