Budget bill with $$$ for snow and ice, shelters clears Senate

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 19, 2015…..Proposing to give cities and towns five years to pay off snow removal bills piled up from this winter, the Senate on Thursday passed a $361 million midyear spending bill that would also finance excess costs for public employee health insurance, pay for additional emergency shelter assistance and support family social workers.

While Gov. Charlie Baker has said he hopes to receive the budget bill soon since it contains time-sensitive appropriations, the House and Senate appear headed toward conference committee negotiations with several significant provisions either omitted from or added to the bill the House passed last week.

The Senate, for instance, did not include a provision passed in the House that would allow slot machine gamblers in the state to win up to $1,200 before they must stop playing and report their winnings to the IRS.

Under current state gaming laws, future Massachusetts gamblers who win more than $600 must immediately fill out a form at the casino to report their winnings. The federal limit before reporting requirements kick in is $1,200.

The Senate bill, unlike the House, also proposes to allow the University of Massachusetts to retain tuition revenue that campuses collect from in-state student rather than return that money to the state. Similar proposals for UMass have passed the Senate multiple times but never made it into law. Supporters say the measure would make student costs more transparent.

“This mid-year spending bill allows us to sustain critical government services through the end of Fiscal Year 2015 while maintaining a fiscally responsible budget,” Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said in a statement. “These funds support social workers, emergency assistance and shelter for homeless families and other services that help children, families and communities across the Commonwealth. We also provide funding to help our communities continue to recover from this winter’s historic storms.”

The Senate adopted a Sen. John Keenan amendment that would extend through 2020 the period when cities and towns could gradually pay the costs associated with snow and ice removal this winter, but rejected his effort to allocate an additional $50 million for cities and towns to pay their snow removal bills

Keenan’s financing amendment passed after he explained to the chamber that it would only apply to this historically brutal winter and would allow municipalities another route for paying the big bills beyond hiking property taxes above their statutory limits.

Following the House’s lead, the Senate also accepted a Sen. William Brownsberger amendment reauthorizing the statewide grand jury through 2020.

Attorney General Maura Healey has pushed for the re-authorization, which expired soon before she took office, arguing it is an efficient means of prosecuting crimes that cross county lines, but Martin Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, told the News Service Thursday grand jury indictments are already “quite easy” for a prosecutor to secure, and requiring prosecutors to hold grand juries in the county where a crime was allegedly committed is an appropriate burden for law enforcement.

The House passed its version of the spending bill (H 65) last week with a smaller net impact on the fiscal 2015 budget at $347 million. Senators motored through 41 amendments without taking any roll call votes on Thursday. Senators previously said the $402 million in total spending authorized in the bill would be offset by federal and municipal reimbursements.

Several senators took the opportunity to highlight for the chamber issues they plan to champion this session, even as some of them withdrew their amendments on the subjects.

Sen. Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, criticized the House for tying up a local Burlington bill, while Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, talked up state funding for an Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial.

Sen. Cynthia Creem spoke of the risk that towns will reduce the number of students participating in the Metco program without adequate state funding. The Senate rejected on a voice vote her amendment to boost funding for the program that brings students from Boston and Springfield to suburban school districts.

The Senate also passed an amendment that asks the secretary of elder affairs and the secretary of consumer affairs to study the impact of requiring in-person consultations for people seeking a reverse mortgage on their home.

In 2010, the Legislature passed a law requiring in-person counseling for anyone seeking a reverse mortgage, but because there were not enough qualified counselors available implementation of the law was delayed until 2014.

Counselors must be certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and senators who want to study the issue said there are still not enough counselors available to those who want to unlock equity in their homes.

The Senate budget bill (S 21) also includes $50 million for snow and ice removal costs for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, $7 million to reimburse state agencies for extraordinary expenses incurred because of winter storms, $7.6 million for Department of Children and Families’ caseloads, $27.4 million for caseloads in group homes for foster children and community-based services, and $51.5 million for the state’s emergency assistance homeless shelter program

The bill would change the composition of the Health Connector board and impose more frequent reporting requirements, validate 13 collective bargaining agreements, and authorize the Committee for Public Counsel Services to waive the billable hours cap for private counsel in the children and family law division.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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