House passes $39.6 billion Mass. budget bill

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BOSTON – The Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed a $39.6 billion fiscal 2017 budget bill Wednesday afternoon, shipping its spending plan to the Senate where a debate is planned in May to shape its vision of what state outlays should look like beginning July 1.

The budget bill was approved after two-plus days of deliberations marked by light and sporadic debate, with most of the decisions made in a House ante-room where lawmakers were instructed to go and talk to Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey about their hundreds of amendments.

Lawmakers added $86 million in spending to the bottom line through nine “consolidated” amendments compiled by House leaders and also passed unanimously.

The final bill received 156 votes, with three Democrats not recorded.

In closing remarks where he thanked members and staff as votes were being tallied, Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) boasted of the House’s record of producing budgets that are “on time and in balance.”

Last year, House and Senate members agreed on a final budget a full week into fiscal 2016 and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, vetoed $162 million in spending items, as the legislative and executive branches differed on the bottom line.

With the additional state spending tacked on through the consolidated amendments, the House budget plan rose about $10 million higher than the $39.55 billion spending bill submitted by Baker in January. This year’s additions were less costly than last year’s, which amounted to $4.7 million more.

Paul Craney, the executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, an organization that has frequently used budget-week roll call votes to target incumbent Democratic lawmakers, criticized the process.

“If you blinked, you could have missed it,” Craney said. “In just about a week’s time, House leadership unveiled its version of the 2017 budget, 160 house members submitted more than 1,300 amendments, no more than 20 meaningful roll call votes were taken, and the budget was passed on to the Senate. Seems like a little more deliberation is due for a $40 billion budget.”

House members agreed to pack into the budget scores of earmark amendments designed to pay for local projects. If the Senate rejects those earmarks, they could still be added back to the final spending plan if a six-member conference committee is amenable.

Governors over the years have often frowned on earmarks, which limit the discretion of executive branch officials to make spending decisions.

Aside from what industry officials describe as a hospital tax and lawmakers classify as an assessment, the budget does not include any new taxes or tax increases. The House rejected an amendment to raise the gas tax by 3 cents per gallon and avoided a vote on reducing the sales tax to 5 percent by agreeing to study that issue instead.

The budget provides “targeted investments” to support the early education workforce, including a $15 million salary reserve, $2 million for access to early education programs and $18.6 million for kindergarten expansion grants.

The bill approved Wednesday also includes $159 million more in local aid than the current year’s budget.

“I think it’s a good document, local aid was prioritized in a way that satisfied a lot of members on my side of the aisle. That was one of the number one priorities across the board,” House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) said. “It goes off to the Senate now and we’ll see what the Senate does. Hopefully we continue to make progress toward having a budget to the governor’s desk in time so he can exercise his judgment.”

House Republicans sought to sequester up to $100 million in excess state tax revenues to send to cities and towns, but were rebuffed by Democrats.

The fiscal 2017 budget plan approved Wednesday will fund 45 new addiction treatment beds at Taunton State Hospital.

The Legislature has increased funding for substance addiction services by more than 65 percent since fiscal 2012, according to DeLeo’s office.

Written by Michael P. Norton, Andy Metzger and Colin A. Young