House passes new spending bill, sends to Senate

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BOSTON – Members of the state House of Representatives unanimously approved $167.6 million in new spending for the current fiscal year on Wednesday, passing a measure that House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey described as a “bill paying exercise.”

The legislation now moves to the Senate.

The midyear spending bill includes $25 million for public counsel services, $18 million for county sheriffs, $14.9 million for the Department of Children and Families, $41 million for emergency family shelter and services programs and $10.9 million to cover collective bargaining agreements at the University of Massachusetts.

After Dempsey told the members that House leadership would “resist” any amendments that proposed to add more spending or policy changes, lawmakers that had filed 25 different amendments to the bill promptly withdrew their proposals.

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) expressed confidence that state revenue will rebound and can support the additional $167.6 million in spending, even though recent collections have trailed forecasts.

Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year identified a $320 million midyear budget problem. He made about $50 million in unilateral spending cuts and said the remainder of the gap would be covered through savings and an anticipated influx of revenue.

Excluding $26.9 million in one-time tax settlements, tax collections eight months into fiscal 2016 totaled $15.551 billion, $382 million, or 2.5 percent, above last year at this time and $123 million below the benchmark used for budget purposes.

Asked about his confidence that the state will have sufficient revenue this year, DeLeo said, “I think where we are right now, I think we feel fairly comfortable.”

“We’re still below benchmark, but I think we’re close enough that I think that there is a comfort level. In talking to the secretary of administration and finance –  I think it was this past Monday or the Monday before –  she felt very comfortable in terms of where we were,” the Speaker said. “She had expected that in the remaining months of this fiscal year that we would rebound and end the year on a positive note. Of course, you can’t guarantee that, but on the other hand she felt fairly good.”

Dempsey said the extra spending authorizations related to “caseloads and other factors that we’re all accustomed to.”

Noting state revenues were trailing benchmarks at the end of February, Dempsey said “we have to continue to be cautious with our spending.” He said he hoped members would “work with us” on amendments with the goal of trying to quickly get the bill signed into law since some accounts are running out of money.

Written by Matt Murphy, Michael Norton and  Colin A. Young