EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 27, 2014

State budget bill peppered with add-ons


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — BOSTON (AP) — House lawmakers filed nearly 1,200 amendments in advance of tomorrow’s scheduled debate on the state’s $36.2 billion budget, some to restore funds slashed from programs during lean economic times and others to benefit pet projects at the local level.

Only a relatively small number of amendments are likely to survive and be added to the spending bill before it leaves the House and moves to the Senate. Most will never even reach the floor but will instead be withdrawn or consolidated through a process that is orchestrated by Democratic leaders and unfolds largely outside of public view.

The improving economy has buoyed hopes among some legislators and advocacy groups for an accelerated return to prerecession funding levels across state government. Adding to the optimism is better-than-projected revenue results: Through the first nine months of the current fiscal year, tax collections were running $228 million above benchmark and totaled $1.2 billion more than at the same time a year ago.

Still, House leaders have adopted a cautious approach to spending. The budget proposal released April 9 by the House Ways and Means Committee called for a bottom line increase of about 5 percent from a year ago but was nearly $200 million less than the budget proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

The House plan offers “targeted” budget hikes in areas such as public higher education, mental health and substance abuse programs, and state aid to cities and towns.

Among the hundreds of amendments that could be considered:

TAX AMNESTY

It’s an election year, meaning tax increases are for all intents and practical purposes off the table in the budget discussion. Republican-backed amendments that would reduce or roll back taxes are likely to fare no better, but Rep. Brad Jones, the House minority leader, is hopeful that an amnesty proposal for taxpayers who fell into arrears during the economic downturn will be debated.

Under Jones’ plan, taxpayers — both individuals and businesses — would still need to pay off their past tax liabilities but the state would waive all penalties that accrued for nonpayment.

The first $20 million in back taxes collected under the program would be directed into a fund to help local police departments purchase the anti-overdose drug Narcan.

EARLY EDUCATION

The House budget includes $7.5 million in additional spending to reduce a long waiting list of low-income families seeking subsidies for prekindergarten and other child care programs. But that was only half of what the governor sought and advocates contend it would not be enough to make a sizable dent in the waiting list.

Several amendments would bolster funding for early education, including one sponsored by more than 40 lawmakers that would boost the spending increase targeted to reduce the waiting list to $15 million. Another would create a $25 million reserve fund to help pay salaries and benefits for early education teachers and child care workers.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

State law requires that school districts be reimbursed 100 percent of per-pupil costs in the first year after a student moves from a conventional public school to a charter school, and 25 percent in each of the following five years. But reimbursements have fallen short in recent years, complicating attempts to raise the cap on charter schools in low-performing school districts. One amendment would increase funds set aside for charter school reimbursements from $80,000 to $104,000.

LOCAL AID

House leaders say amendments to increase local aid will not be considered during the budget debate, since the House and Senate previously approved a resolution calling for a $25 million increase in unrestricted aid for cities and towns and $100 million more in Chapter 70 aid for public school districts. Still, Republicans hope to offer a proposal that would require the state to return to cities and towns at least 50 percent of any unanticipated tax revenue surplus at the end of the next fiscal year.

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS?

Many budget amendments seek relatively small appropriations for local initiatives. One example: $310,000 to begin planning for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620.