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The Massachusetts Senate Takes Its Turn At The State Budget

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and Governor Charlie Baker in the state Senate chamber.
State House News Service
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and Governor Charlie Baker in the state Senate chamber.

It's a big week for the always drawn-out process of passing a state budget in Massachusetts. 

And just about everyone has an opinion about what should be in it. It's Senate budget week.

Senators will begin debate on the proposed $42.7 billion spending plan. Again, like the budget passed by the House, we didn't see a major tax hike proposed in this bill.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Going into the week, what are some of the possible areas of disagreement in the Senate budget?

Matt Murphy, State House New Service: Yeah, no major tax hikes. But the Senate Ways and Means Committee did put in a few of Governor Charlie Baker's smaller, more minor tax proposals, including a tax on opioid manufacturing profits, and a separate tax on vaping and e-cigarette products. So we're expecting those to be adopted.

There could be some debate around some others, but we aren't expecting a major new revenue debate.

Some things we are watching: what happens with UMass funding, and language that the Senate budget bill on the floor has that would freeze tuition for the next school year, without giving what the university says it needs to cover its fixed costs for the upcoming academic year?

That's been a battle brewing between UMass President Marty Meehan and legislative leaders here. He was on Beacon Hill meeting with Senate President Karen Spilka last week. We're watching to see what happens with that.

Also, the Senate budget returned to some of the pharmaceutical pricing controls that Governor Charlie Baker was pushing that were weakened, I guess you could say, in the House version. Those are back, and strengthened, in the version that the Senate will be debating.

But we have seen in the past, as in the House debate, that this could be an area for consideration, and some disagreement — concern for what it could do to the life science industry in Massachusetts.

About that education funding: there was that huge sit-in last week by student activists in the Statehouse, and the calls by UMass for the extra $10 million. In general, what sort of reaction are you hearing back from lawmakers?

At least on the UMass issue, lawmakers feel like the 6 to 7 percent increase that the budget already calls for the University Massachusetts system should be sufficient.

On the public education K-12 system, last week was a big week for activists coming to Beacon Hill, demanding reforms to the state funding formula. This is something, though, that we're expecting to take a little more time, and not be dealt with directly in the budget.

We expect the Senate to turn its attention to the education issue after they get through this budget debate.

Senate chair Jason Lewis told one of our reporters last week that he thinks the education committee will put out a full education funding reform bill in June. So that would really start the clock on that debate, once the Senate gets through this budget.

And are we anticipating that the bulk of the Senate budget debate is going to be done like the House debate was? And that is behind closed doors?

Well, they do it slightly differently, but the process is not exactly transparent.

You will see more debate in the Senate. You do see the small Republican caucus of six in the Senate led by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. He will frequently force Democrats, or at least ask Democrats, to explain amendments that they're voting on, and they will go one by one for a time.

They don't do the same sort of consolidation that the House does by subject matter, but as the week draws on, you will see them start to bundle big packages of amendments. And they do it in these sort of "yes" and "no" bundles, to adopt large chunks of amendments in single votes. So they have a different but similar process when, you know, it takes some doing, to kind of follow what is happening.

Communities always like to get their Chapter 90 numbers early for budgeting reasons — that's the money allocated for road and bridge repair. The current bill under consideration in the Senate is disappointing to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Can you walk us through why?

Yeah, we're curious to see if the Senate might try and get this done this week, as well, as they're debating the budget.

The House, two weeks, ago passed a $200 million borrowing bill to send that money back to cities and towns for road repair. The Massachusetts Municipal Association and municipalities, for years, have been clamoring for additional money.

They would like to see this annual appropriation bumped up to at least $300 million.

They say they have about $600 million in unmet infrastructure, road repair needs, and they would also like to see a multi-year bill done that could allow them to plan well out into the future.

But Beacon Hill so far has been resistant to this.

We actually talked to House chair Rep. William Strauss about a point that he said that Chapter 90 isn't the only area that cities and towns get money for road repairs. So he thinks the $200 million is sufficient. And this is identical to the bill that the governor filed — it's moving over to the Senate.

We are getting late into the spring. Cities and towns are getting anxious to start planning, and signing contracts, for these pothole projects and sidewalk projects, and other repairs that are needed. So we're watching to see if the Senate can get this done quickly.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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