House passes FY15 budget
The House passed its version of the annual budget in early May. The $36.32 billion proposal emphasizes the importance of enhanced fiscal predictability and sustainable investments without assuming the availability of federal funding, a practice that has raised Massachusetts bond rating to AA+, the highest in the state’s history. Building on its responsible yet proactive approach to combatting the recession, the budget contains multiple measures to generate revenue, achieve sustainable economic growth and create jobs.
The budget, which did not include the taxes Gov. Deval Patrick proposed in his budget, cleared the House with broad, bipartisan support with a 148-2 vote.
Franklin and Medway are also slated to receive funding under the House proposal. Franklin would receive $60,000 for the installation and operation of solar powered school zone safety lights. For Medway, $22,000 was allocated for a hydraulic analysis of the dam in Choate Park.
This budget enhances the Commonwealth’s partnerships with municipalities by not only boosting local aid, but also increasing predictability of funding levels. In March, the House and Senate adopted a Joint Local Aid Resolution, which includes a $25.5 million increase to Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) and a $100 million increase to Chapter 70 education funding. The early announcement allowed cities and towns to prepare appropriately as they crafted their municipal FY’15 budgets.
Additional economic development measures include:
- Provides $2 million for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership that will benefit programs designed to assist small and mid-sized manufacturers;
- Travel and tourism is one of the state’s largest industries, generating almost $17 billion in travel related expenditures and supporting 124,700 in-state jobs. The budget allocates $15 million for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and $6 million in regional tourism funding to promote statewide initiatives and increased international travel.
- Establishes a two month tax amnesty program that would allow for waived penalties under the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. Up to $5 million collected from the program would go into an Opioid Overdose Prevention Fund, with the rest going into the General Fund. Taxpayers who participate in the program would be precluded from any future tax amnesty programs for ten years.
Building on the continued leadership in reforming and strengthening the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the FY’15 budget includes several initiatives to ensure safety and well-being of children by reducing social worker caseloads, hiring more employees, improving communications, IT and record keeping practices, and ensuring initial medical screenings of all children entering DCF care within 72 hours. Background checks will now be required for all current and future foster parents. Individuals will be precluded from becoming foster parents if convicted of serious crimes, including those involving violence or sexual in nature. Additionally, the House requires the Office of the Child Advocate, with input from the Attorney General and the Inspector General, to conduct an emergency management audit of the Department to improve its administration.
This budget reflects Speaker DeLeo’s pledge to combat the alarming rise in behavioral health problems, including substance addiction. To improve quality of care for people suffering from mental illness, the House provides substantial funding for the Department of Mental Health to clear its wait list, and the budget significantly increases its investment in the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership. The House budget expands the Nasal Narcan™ Bystander and First Responder program and provides additional funding for sober homes and clinical stabilization beds. The budget also fully funds the Prescription Monitoring program to create an extensive IT network, analyzing the Commonwealth’s prescribing and dispensing trends to prevent over-prescription of medications like opioids.
This year’s spending bill underscores the House’s ongoing commitment to strengthening its educational systems in order to bolster communities and provide residents with a competitive edge. It continues to support investments in state universities and community colleges while prioritizing the implementation of the STEM Starter Academy, an initiative created in the FY’14 budget to expand and enhance STEM programming in community colleges. The House increases funding to state universities, community colleges and invests in the UMass system, enabling it to continue to work towards the goal of freezing tuition and fees. This spending package also funds a competitive grant program for Adult College Transition Services to help low-income workers succeed in college programs.
This budget enhances support for social programs including Family Support Services, Employment Services and Shannon Grants. The budget provided increased funding for homelessness programs, increased funding for Emergency Food Assistance and creates a pilot program to provide nutritious meals for homeless families.
Amendments from Rep. William Straus and Minority Leader Brad Jones would loosen the state’s regulation of wine sales at vineyards and online. The Jones amendment would create a new license for direct wine sales, which is something former New England Patriots quarterback and current vintner Drew Bledsoe has lobbied for. The license would be available to wineries with federal permits, costing $300 initially and $150 for renewal. The wineries would need to pay taxes on the shipments and would be penalized for shipping to anyone underage.
The Straus amendment would allow wineries to offer wine samples, as long as no sample exceeds one ounce and no more than five samples are served to any one individual. Currently, wineries are allowed to sell wine by the glass if they are licensed to do so.