The Massachusetts Senate on Friday voted to pass a $33.989 billion budget for fiscal year 2014 (FY14)., announced Senator Karen Spilka. Once again the Senate's has adhered to its unfaltering pledge to prioritize funding for cities and towns. It also makes strategic investments to increase economic security and support economic development.
The spending plan includes new investments in housing, education, veterans' services and mental health programs while closing a $1.2 billion budget gap. The FY14 budget utilizes new revenues generated as a result of the joint transportation finance framework agreed on by the House and Senate last month and continues the Senate's commitment to fiscal responsibility while meeting the needs of citizens through restoring vital funding to core services and increasing support for economic and workforce development.
"This budget moves away from some of the painful cuts of the past and begins to make targeted investments in areas that will support and sustain our economy," said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. "I am proud of the funding we have been able to dedicate to building innovation and efficiency while maintaining a partnership with our municipalities and providing essential increases to residents most in need."
"This is a fiscally responsible budget that will ensure we remain on a path for continued economic growth and development while maintaining our commitment to increasing funding for education, our communities, and the services our most vulnerable citizens rely on," said Spilka.
Continuing the commitment to cities and towns, the budget includes a $166.2 million boost for local aid over FY13 spending. Once again, the Senate allocates more than 900 million in unrestricted government aid (including 21.5 million provided through a transfer from surplus revenue from FY13) and increases funding for local education, or Chapter 70, ensuring that all school districts receive at least $25 per pupil over FY 2013. Funding for SPED Circuit Breaker, which reimburses for the cost of high needs special education students, is fully funded at $252.8 million and the $7.3 million increase in funding for Regional School Transportation marks the highest reimbursement rate for regional school transportation costs since FY09.
The final budget also increased McKinney-Vento Transportation by $1.3 million to alleviate costs accrued by school districts for transporting homeless children to their home schools, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), which provides direct local aid to certain municipalities for hosting state-owned land, by $1 million and $1 million for the education "pothole" funding, which provides state funding to towns that educate military dependents but do not receive the full cost of schooling through federal funds. It also increases funding for local tourism councils by $1.5 million.
During two days of public debate, the Senate adopted a number of amendments to strengthen the bill, including many investments and provisions filed by Spilka.
An important resource to assist struggling manufacturing companies was supported through Spilka's amendment to fund the Layoff Aversion Program operated by the Smaller Business Association of New England. This program provides managerial and financial consulting on a dollar for dollar matching basis to companies in order to help them stay open and keep workers on the job.
Another investment led by Spilka was the first step in the statewide implementation of the new FACES law, also known as CHINS reform, creating Family Resource centers to help children and families across the Commonwealth and funding a 211 hot line for use by courts, schools and families. This amendment puts in place the beginning stages of Spilka's landmark 2012 CHINS Reform Bill, providing resources to allow Health and Human services agencies to begin coordinating services to families, helping them receive assistance in their communities instead of going to the courts.
"This critical reform has the potential give the thousands of children and families who need assistance each year a clearer path to accessing the services and supports they need without exacerbating their situation and before it becomes dire. This funding continues our commitment to make sure that path is built," said Spilka.
The Senate also adopted Spilka's amendment to create a safeguard for elderly and disabled transit riders on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Regional Transit Authorities from disproportionate fare increases. This amendment develops a tiered structure to ensure affordable access for paratransit riders, so that the cost of a ride is proportional to a person's income and their ability to pay.
"This was an issue about quality of life and equity," said Spilka. "Our seniors and disabled residents on tight budgets should not have to choose between transportation to their medical appointments or paying for their groceries."
Continuing their obligations to the state's most vulnerable; the Senate budget included an $11.5 million salary reserve for human services workers. An amendment filed by Spilka creates a fund to improve the hourly wage of over 19,000 low-paid direct care workers who are currently making less than $40,000 per year. The fund provides a modest salary increase to these vital and dedicated workers.
"This adjustment will help stabilize our human service workforce," said Spilka. "As a former social worker, I understand the importance of maintaining a strong human services safety net to provide quality care for residents with complex medical needs, disabilities, and mental illness."
Other Spilka amendments to assist persons with disabilities approved by the full Senate include:
• $50,000 to expand the Best Buddies program to expand to more schools a program designed to promote friendships between students with disabilities and their classmates
• Increased funding for the state's 11 independent living centers devoted to helping people move out of nursing homes
The Senate also voted to:
• Expand the state's bottle bill to include non-carbonated drinks such as water, coffee-based drinks and sports drinks;
• Increase funding for Youth-at-Risk Summer Jobs by $1 million to $9 million;
• Provides $8 million for MassHealth Dental Services.
• Dedicate $11.5 million for the child care salary reserve, increasing the reimbursement rates for state-subsidized childcare providers;
The Senate plan remains strong on public safety, funding the State Police at $256.1 million for State Police Operations, appropriating monies for a new recruit class, increasing the appropriation for the Municipal Police Training Committee, and increasing funding for Shannon Grants, which provide support to communities hardest hit by gang crime and violence, by $750,000 to $7 million in total funding.
Also included was $11.3 million in new funding for Elder Affairs programs and funds for councils on aging at the highest level of state support ever. The Senate's plan will eliminate existing wait lists for home care services and will increase funding for Foster Care and Adopted Fee Waivers to ensure that the Commonwealth fully reimburses institutions for the tuition and fees for children in foster care or who are adopted regardless of family circumstance. It adds $1 million for the Turning 22 program that funds the first-year of services for individuals with intellectual disabilities transitioning out of Special Education into adult services.
In addition to targeted investments in many key areas of government, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment to reform sex offender registry laws. The proposal strengthens the procedures for classifying convicted sex offenders and ensures that the Sex Offender Registry Board has the information it needs to protect our children and communities.
The Senate also unanimously approved an amendment filed by Senate President Therese Murray to establish an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) registry, to be known as the Argeo Paul Cellucci Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Registry, named for the former Massachusetts Governor who suffers from the fatal disease.
Importantly, the Senate paused during its second day of public debate to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to our country. As in previous years, members read the names of service members who were killed in action during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom as part of the ceremony. The same day, the Senate moved to adopt Spilka's amendment to provide $15,000 to help fund the Town of Medway's efforts to bring the Vietnam Moving Wall to town for its 300th anniversary on May 30 through June 3, 2013.
Spilka commented: "Remembering the sacrifices made by our veterans, those who lost their lives and those who have had their lives changed forever as a result of their service, is the duty of all Americans.
The Senate's budget for FY14 prioritizes resources for vital programs that help people, families, and communities, including significant increases for mental health services and for sustainable housing. Although Massachusetts continues to recover from the recession at a rate faster than most states, many programs that offer key services still have not seen funding levels restored to before the economic downturn. This budget targets many of those investments key to continuing the state's recovery and confronts remaining challenges.