Funding for UMass a key difference between House and Senate bills

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 5, 2015…..The Senate is expected to debate a roughly $340 million spending bill to close out the books on fiscal year 2015 when it convenes on Thursday, but legislative leaders will also have to reconcile differences between the Senate’s bill and the $360 million closeout bill approved by the House last week.

The Senate’s version of the bill (S 2025) provides $341.6 million in direct appropriations, including $203 million for MassHealth, $31.5 million to cover remaining snow- and ice-related costs for the Department of Transportation, and $21.7 million for county sheriffs, who over the years frequently have required supplemental state appropriations.

The Senate’s bill, which emerged Monday from the Senate Ways and Means Committee, also makes funds available for substance abuse treatment services, including:

– $15.2 million to the Division of Substance Abuse Services at the Department of Public Health to fund increased reimbursement for substance abuse residential beds and school-based substance use screening;

– $3.8 million for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for municipal grants to provide mental health and substance abuse counseling in schools;

– $5.8 million to establish a substance use treatment program to provide detoxification and clinical services for civilly-committed women with substance use disorders at Taunton State Hospital.

The Department of Children and Families, which has been a focus of legislative attention in light of recent high-profile failures of child welfare, is set to receive about $5.5 million from the Senate bill, including $2.5 million “to address immediate staffing and training needs at the department.”

The Senate bill calls for $120 million to be deposited into the state’s stabilization fund — often known as the rainy day fund — and for $100 million to be transferred to a debt defeasance fund to pay debt obligations coming due in fiscal 2016. The House approved a $75 million deposit into the stabilization fund.

“Today the Senate Ways and Means Committee took a significant step toward making sure our state will be able to weather future economic storms by adding $120 million to the rainy day fund. With the Great Recession behind us, it is time to make aggressively replenishing this fund a priority,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said in a statement. “Massachusetts weathered the recession better than most states but if we don’t prepare ourselves now we will not be as fortunate the next time.”

Notably absent from the Senate’s version of the bill is funding to cover $10.9 million in retroactive pay increases for University of Massachusetts faculty and staff unions. The $10.9 million, which was approved in the House version of the bill, would fully fund the first year of three-year contracts for 6,500 faculty and staff across the UMass system.

The Senate’s bill does include about $8.8 million to fund collective bargaining costs for state universities, which Rosenberg said had agreed to pass along some of the savings to students.

“What I understand from the chair and the folks at Ways and Means is they were very excited when they saw the proposal from the state universities that if they could get that collective bargaining money that they didn’t get earlier that they would pass 80 percent of the savings on to the students by reducing student charges, so thumbs up to the state universities,” the Senate president, whose district incudes the flagship UMass campus in Amherst, said. “The committee decided to make that a priority.”

UMass President Martin Meehan said last month that UMass would fund the pay raises, which emerged as a key component of the push by Gov. Charlie Baker and others on Beacon Hill to get Meehan to reconsider student tuition and fees hikes this academic year, with confidence that the state would help foot the bill.

“I think that there was some discussion about trying to get some of the student fees returned,” Sen. Karen Spilka, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said about the absence. “We’re in discussions.”

In a letter to Spilka and her House counterpart Rep. Brian Dempsey last week, Meehan said the $10.9 million would cover the remaining portion of the contracts for fiscal 2015, and that UMass would be willing to connect its fiscal 2016 funding to student fees in that fiscal year.

“Should the Legislature decided (sic) to appropriate an additional $21 million to cover the state’s share of collective bargaining costs for FY16, the University of Massachusetts would also be able to credit back to students and their families fees associated with funding these obligations, just as the state universities have proposed,” Meehan wrote.

Both Spilka and Rosenberg noted, though, that the bill is likely to be amended and further changed before both branches agree to a single bill.

An outside section of the Senate bill sets aside $300,000 to create a program in the Trial Court system to identify gaps in the state’s criminal justice system and to find ways to “better serve individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders involved in the criminal justice system.” Another outside section directs $250,000 toward grants to municipalities for police body camera pilot programs.

During its session Monday, the Senate adopted an order placing the bill on its calendar for a full formal session on Thursday, and set a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday for all amendments to the supplemental budget bill to be filed with the clerk.

Last week, the House unanimously passed a $360 million version of the bill. The House version of the bill is expected to cost an additional $248 million after federal reimbursements. The Senate version would use $240.1 million in state resources, according to a bill summary.

Senate bill text:

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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