EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 11, 2013

Ways and Means approves $33.8B state budget

Proposal, which includes photos on EBT cards, goes to house for debate

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — BOSTON — Welfare benefit cards would be emblazoned with the photograph of the person authorized to use them, as one of several reform proposals in a $33.8 billion state budget approved yesterday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Legislature shied away from putting photos on electronic benefit transfer cards last year when a review commission expressed concern about the cost. Gov. Deval Patrick has also indicated he opposes the idea.

But state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the House is prepared to make a strong push for the measure this time.

"EBT card trafficking is a big problem," said Dempsey, who unveiled the Ways and Means budget with Speaker Robert DeLeo yesterday. "We are committed to EBT reform and cutting down on fraud and abuse."

Another reform proposal in the Ways and Means package requires the Department of Early Education and Care to review licensed child-care facilities to make sure no sex offenders are living at the same address. The measure comes in the wake of a report from state Auditor Suzanne Bump that found that 119 sex offenders had addresses that matched the locations of 75 child-care providers.

Level II sex offenders, whose identities are only available now upon request at local police stations, would also be posted online, according to the Ways and Means plan.

In response to another crisis over evidence tampering at state drug evidence laboratories, the Ways and Means budget proposes $3 million to hire 43 short-term employees and $846,000 to build out the headquarters of the State Police drug lab in Maynard to address a backlog of testing samples.

The statewide spending proposal now heads to the full House for debate and then the Senate.

The plan calls for a 3.9 percent increase in spending and $500 million in new gas, cigarette and business taxes.

But the Ways and Means plan cuts $1 billion off Gov. Deval Patrick's budget proposal, which seeks to increase spending next year by 6.9 percent. The governor's plan relies on $1.9 billion in new taxes to pay for transportation projects and increased education spending.

The tax revenue divide between the two plans sets the landscape for the coming political theater and what promises to be tense negotiations in the months leading to the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

The Ways and Means proposal boosts funding for local aid by $21.3 million over last year and increases public school aid by $25 per student, or $109.5 million. It also dedicates enough new revenue to UMass to avoid tuition and fee hikes for two years

Dempsey's plan relies on $175 million in new casino licensing revenues, $350 million from the state's cash reserves and the $500 million tax package. The House approved the tax hikes Monday and the Senate is gearing up to consider them

The House voted 97-55 Monday night to approve the tax package that would raise the state's gas tax by 3-cents, increase the per-pack cigarette tax by $1 and impose new taxes on utility companies, software services and out-of-state corporations doing business in Massachusetts.

The House tax package, while opposed by Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats who don't want any tax increases, falls far short of the governor's proposal for a larger mix of tax hikes to pay for his $1.9 billion transportation and education plan. Patrick has promised to veto the Legislature's proposal if it doesn't come closer to the $1.9 billion in new tax revenue he wants.

In pitching the Ways and Means proposal yesterday, DeLeo said it delivers services to people who need them while paying heed to the fragile economy and the state's strapped finances

"Fiscal prudence is how he have kept our unemployment rate below the national average and it is the reason we are one of only four states with more than $1 billion in our stabilization fund," DeLeo said, referring to the reserve account that is also known as the "rainy day" fund.

The Ways and Means plan, which the House will begin debating April 22, draws $50 million less than Patrick's proposed spending from reserves. The fund would stand at $1.1 billion after it is tapped for next year's budget under the House plan, DeLeo said.

Dempsey said his plan directs $265 million of the new tax revenue to transportation, and uses the balance to invest in local aid, Chapter 70 education aid and higher education. The proposal increases local transportation aid, which is used to pave and improve roads, for every city and town in the Merrimack Valley, Dempsey said.

The Ways and Means plan relies on $719.5 million in one-time revenues. Of the $838 million in estimated tax growth next fiscal year, the committee's budget reports that $308 million will be consumed by increased costs of human and social services and $188 million in collective bargaining costs, leaving $530 million for other spending.

Dempsey's budget level funds the special education circuit breaker and regional school transportation at $235.5 million and $45.5 million respectively.

The Ways and Means budget proposes reforms and initiatives in the areas of health and human services oversight, higher education and early education and care, including a requirement that the Department of Transitional Assistance issue photo ID cards for electronic benefit transfer card recipients intended to weed out EBT fraud.

The budget plan dedicates $39 million in increased funding to the University of Massachusetts as part of a strategy to achieve a 50 percent balance between state and university funding over the next two years that UMass officials have said would be sufficient to freeze tuition and fee rates for two years.

State universities and community colleges will also see a bump, in part because of new gaming money earmarked for the community colleges.

The budget proposes a 10-member commission to review the financing model for higher education in Massachusetts and determine appropriate funding levels moving forward. The Ways and Means proposal calls for the same type of commission to review early education services and needs.

District attorneys would see 5 percent increases in their office budgets, under the Way and Means proposal.

The focus of the tax debate now shifts to the Senate where its Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday is expected to release a revised version of the House-backed transportation financing proposal.

The Senate bill, according to advocates and sources within the Senate, however, is expected to contain reforms and other changes that may require the two branches to reconcile the bills, a step that would delay the proposal from reaching the governor's desk.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.