Mass. Senate ready to make case for higher education funding increases

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STATE HOUSE — The Massachusetts Senate is poised in the coming weeks to press the House and Gov. Charlie Baker to make larger investments in public higher education.

The fiscal 2017 budget proposal (S 4) marked for released Tuesday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee will call for a $13 million increase, above funding levels approved in April by the House, for the University of Massachusetts, according to committee chairwoman Sen. Karen Spilka. The committee’s spending plan will allocate more than $521 million for the UMass system.

The Senate budget will call for a $16 million increase, above the appropriations approved by the House, for community colleges and state universities. The Senate budget bill will call for nearly $282 million in spending on the state’s 15 community colleges and $258.4 million for the state’s nine public universities.

“I think that there’s the acknowledgement that education is the key to success for not only individual kids and families but for our future of the Commonwealth, that this is something that we really need to invest into,” Spilka said. “That’s something that I heard from pretty much all of the senators.”

Total appropriations in the Senate’s spending bill will be less than the $39.508 billion budget approved by the House, and lower than the $39.55 billion recommended in January by Gov. Baker, Spilka said.

According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House budget increased total spending by 3.55 percent and Baker’s budget raised spending by 3.58 percent.

While details about other aspects of the committee’s budget were not available – the full budget is being released Tuesday morning – Spilka told the News Service that she expected “people will be pleased with” the committee’s recommendation for K-12 public education funding.

The House budget called for a 2.3 percent boost in Chapter 70 aid for local school districts that exceeded Baker’s recommendation by $33.7 million.

Baker and House and Senate leaders all used the same revenue assumptions in building their budgets. With tax collections ten months into fiscal 2016 rising by only about 2 percent, the fiscal 2017 spending plans assume 4.3 percent tax revenue growth. “There’s only one pot, unfortunately,” Spilka said, when asked if the Senate relied on the same revenue estimates as the House.

The Senate budget will call for a $20.5 million increase in funding over this year’s budget for UMass, and a combined $24.4 million increase over fiscal 2016 for community colleges and public universities. The budget also calls for “full funding” of higher education collective bargaining agreements for fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2016, Spilka said.

A new proposal in the Senate budget calls for $350,000 to match a contribution from a “private entity” to pay for college savings accounts for low-income students in grades 7 through 12. The public-private partnership program would fall under the state Treasury, said Spilka, and is aimed at closing income and racial educational attainment gaps. The budget also recommends a $512,000 increase to fully fund public higher education fee waivers for foster and adopted children, $1.1 million for foster care financial aid, and $2.6 million for state university grants to promote the Department of Higher Education’s Vision Project, including efforts to increase enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

Appropriations differences will ultimately be settled by a six-member conference committee, which will be charged with recommending a consensus budget based on the House and Senate spending bills.

— Written by Michael P. Norton

Copyright State House News Service