House Democrats’ state budget seeks to slow spending growth

The budget calls for a $105M increase in state aid to public education

BOSTON (AP) — House leaders unveiled a $39.5 billion Massachusetts budget proposal on Wednesday that calls for slowing the growth of overall state spending, including on Medicaid, while offering a slight boost in funding for local school districts.

The spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee and is expected to go before the full Democratic-controlled House later this month. Mirroring many aspects of the budget proposed earlier this year by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, it calls for a 3.5 percent increase in spending — smaller than in many recent years — and no tax hikes. Tax revenues are forecast to rise 4.3 percent next year.

In both of the last two fiscal years, state leaders have been forced to make midyear adjustments to the budget after finding that spending increases were outstripping revenue growth.

Rep. Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means panel, called the House budget “fiscally responsible” with a focus on education.

“Collectively, members of the House felt strongly about the need to continue to invest in education,” said Dempsey.

The budget calls for a $105 million increase in state aid to public education — formally known as Chapter 70 — compared to a $72 million increase proposed by Baker. Cities and towns had complained that the more modest boost would fall short of recommendations made by a special state commission on per-pupil spending by school districts.

The House, meanwhile, is recommending a $5 million increase in state reimbursements to school districts for charter school tuition, well below the $20.5 million hike in the reimbursements sought by Baker, who backs a major expansion of the charters.

The budget proposes a 1 percent increase in funding for state colleges and universities, and creates a fund to support modest salary increases for teachers in pre-kindergarten programs.

House leaders joined the governor in calling for a series of reforms aimed at limiting growth in the $15.4 billion Medicaid program, the single largest spending area in state government, to 5 percent over the current year. While the plan would not reduce eligibility or benefits, it calls for changes in caseload management and a new $250 million fee on hospitals that would in turn be used to encourage more efficient delivery of health care services.

Noah Berger, president of the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, welcomed the additional Chapter 70 funds proposed by the House but said the overall budget falls short in many areas.

“It doesn’t take on the bigger challenges like trying to make higher education more affordable for families in Massachusetts, or fixing our roads and bridges and public transit systems,” said Berger.

Top state judges, including Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, warned in a statement that the House budget would force about 300 layoffs in the court system and impede efforts to modernize the judiciary.

Also critical of the plan was the Environmental League of Massachusetts, which said it would result in a net decrease in spending that would undermine environmental programs and state parks. Dempsey said the House proposes to spend more on the environment than Baker.

In a speech Wednesday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said previous tax cuts have cost the state $3 billion a year in revenue, jeopardizing investment in many areas of state government.

“This must change,” said Rosenberg, who referenced a proposed 2018 constitutional amendment that would add a surtax of 4 percent on incomes greater than $1 million a year.

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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