Tax holidays approved, money back in state budget

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Written by Michael Norton and Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON   Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday poured millions of dollars back into the state budget over Gov. Charlie Baker’s objections and approved a two-day tax holiday designed to trade expected revenues to the state for an anticipated burst of consumer spending in mid-August.

With both branches meeting simultaneously, the Democratic House and Senate majorities held firm in support of overridingbudget vetoes that Baker said were necessary to ensure a balanced budget in light of what the administration has cautioned is a developing shortfall in the state’s non-tax revenues.

The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly, for example, to restore funding for kindergarten expansion grants, cultural council grants and the University of Massachusetts. Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in overriding many of Baker’s vetoes.

UMass President Martin Meehan called the $5.25 million override for the five-campus system a “victory for the students, faculty and staff” at UMass and said he hoped the Legislature would also approve spending to cover the university’s $10.9 million in “state-funded” union contracts for the 2014-2015 academic year.

The tax holiday, scheduled for Aug. 15-16, drew strong support from Republicans but divided Democrats, with critics of the idea calling it a “boondoggle” and minimizing the 6.25 percent savings that consumers would receive by buying items exempt from the sales tax.

The sales tax holiday bill cleared the House 136-20 and the Senate 27-11. Some lawmakers who voted for it said they did so reluctantly and hoped the measure would get a closer examination next year.

Noting retailers were already advertising with the expectation that the sales tax holiday would be approved, Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton said, “I will be voting for it reluctantly so that the Senate is not blamed for stopping it.”

Both branches plan to return Thursday to continue taking up veto overrides, with House leaders planning to overturn 87 total vetoes worth a collective $97 million.

By not taking up the remainder of Baker’s spending vetoes, the branches would leave about $65 million of his spending cuts in place.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told reporters Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka recommended that any override the House sends to the Senate be placed before the chamber for a vote.

The House and Senate unanimously overrode Baker’s veto of $17.6 million in kindergarten expansion grants, which would have left $1 million in the account.

While he joined in the override vote, House Assistant Minority Leader Brad Hill said there would need to be a “dialogue” about the grants, which he said could be part of a larger debate about education funding. The Baker administration contends the grants continue to flow to districts even after they have established kindergarten programs.

But supporters of the kindergarten grants said the money was a critical component of education funding and Spilka said there are 33 communities in Massachusetts that still don’t have full-day kindergarten.

On other overrides, Republicans split from the majority Democrats, but with the Republican caucus numbering only 35 in the 160-seat House and six in the 40-seat Senate, they were unable to sustain a single one of Baker’s vetoes that House and Senate leadership brought up for a vote.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones voted against an override restoring $3 million in rental vouchers, though only 19 other members of his caucus joined him in that stance.

House Second Assistant Minority Leader Elizabeth Poirier, Rep. Shaunna O’Connell and Rep. Todd Smola – who is the House Republican’s ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee – all voted with the Democrats to restore the voucher funding over Baker’s objection.

In the Senate that override passed unanimously.

Poirier and 18 other House Republicans voted with Democrats to restore $5.2 million Baker vetoed from UMass, as Jones, Hill and 14 other Republicans voted against the override. The UMass funding override also cleared the Senate unanimously.

In the House, only Reps. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, and James Lyons, an Andover Republican, voted against an override that restores $2.4 million for the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Lawmakers in both branches unanimously approved restoring $2 million for unaccompanied homeless youth and $250,000 for a Health Policy Commission pilot program to triage behavioral health patients in the Quincy area.

Baker appeared resigned to seeing many of his vetoes overturned.

“When they finish their work we’ll take a look at it, add it up and figure out what we need to do to make sure that the budgetis balanced and that we live within our means because that fundamentally is the end game we’re all collectively seeking to pursue,” the governor told the News Service.