May 18, 2016

State budget bill draws mixed reaction

Courtesy Photo


Fresh off advancing a $39.49 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July, the Senate's budget chief on Tuesday touted areas of increased investment, but offered little detail about how her committee kept overall spending in check.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee bill, set to hit the floor in front of the full Senate next week, boosts spending on education and child welfare, but still comes in with a bottom line just below the House version passed in April.

About $10 million in reductions was achieved by eliminating some MassHealth grants for hospitals and community health centers, according to the budget director for Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka.

An environmental lobbyist identified another area of Senate frugality, reporting that the Ways and Means budget proposes a $17 million, or 7 percent, cut to environmental agencies compared to what the Legislature allocated in fiscal 2016.

"In particular, we urge the Senate to improve the numbers for environmental protection and state parks, which have been the victim of years of disproportionate budget cuts and staff reductions," said Environmental League Legislative Director Erica Mattison in a statement.

A budget comparison posted on the Legislature's website indicates that the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, through its budget line-item, would inherit responsibilities from administrative departments overseeing environmental protection, state parks, and agriculture under the Senate plan.

Spilka emphasized the theme of "resilience" in this year's Senate budget, which she defined as "the ability to achieve a good outcome in the face of adversity."

At a news conference that followed a press briefing and a unanimous vote of the committee to recommend the budget to the full Senate, Spilka said the Senate budget would explore savings for the state's sheriffs through a task force looking at economies of scale.

Year after year, the elected sheriffs run low on money appropriated through the annual state budget, requiring lawmakers to pass a midyear spending bill.

"They want to be funded fairly and fully just as much as we want to fund them fairly and fully," said Spilka. The Senate's overall funding for the state's 14 sheriffs comes in about $12.3 million less than the $588 million the governor proposed in January, and about $2 million above what the House passed, according to Ways and Means.

In a Senate budget preview, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the possible underfunding of emergency assistance and public defenders in the House budget ranges from $60 million to $80 million.

The Senate Ways and Means budget came in $6.5 million above the House in funding for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, including compensation of private counsel and indigent persons fees and costs. The Senate committee was on par with the House and below the governor in funding emergency shelters.

Noah Berger, president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, described the Senate budget as an "austerity budget" that is "quite similar" to the versions endorsed by Baker and the House.

"It is clear that in this year's budget the state is not going to be able to do things that could make a big difference for families and our economy, like making higher education significantly more affordable or fixing our roads, bridges, and transit systems," Berger said in a statement. "Those investments would require new revenue and that option has not been part of the state budget debate this year."

Deflecting questions on areas where the Senate reduced spending, Spilka said the legislation was developed by considering, "What are our Senate priorities?"

The budget bill (S 4) boosts spending on education, including a new $2 million investment in preschool expansion to serve younger children and increased resources for public higher education institutions.

"On first glance it looks very favorable," said Sen. Don Humason, a Westfield Republican, who said the House, Senate and governor's budget proposals appear to be "close" to one another.

The Senate committee's budget funds the Department of Children and Families and related programs at $939 million, a slight increase over the recommendation of Baker, who made the department one of the few to receive a significant boost in his budget.

"On first glance I'd say this is an extraordinary budget for the children of the Commonwealth," said Children's League of Massachusetts Executive Director Erin Bradley. Bradley praised budgetary language that would grant additional independence to the Office of the Child Advocate and nearly double the budget of the watchdog charged with overseeing the needs of children in state custody.

Spilka said the language would create a process for nominating candidates for the position of child advocate to be selected by the governor, attorney general and auditor, and would move the advocate's position outside of the governor's office in state law books.

Bradley told the News Service the budget will provide "services on the ground" for children, and expand the number of family resource centers, which provide services outside of court.

Bradley said there is currently one resource center for each county, meaning Middlesex - which stretches from Hopkinton to Cambridge to Dracut - has only one center in Lowell.

The Senate Ways and Means budget would establish a new "common application portal" where low-income families could apply for both food aid and MassHealth.

"Streamlining access to multiple social services has the potential to improve the population's overall health and lower the cost of health care for the state," Health Care for All said in a statement. "We also applaud the Senate for funding the state's program that educates doctors on cost-effective use of prescription drugs."

According to Spilka, the committee budget includes $135 million for substance abuse prevention, a $19.4 million increase over estimated spending in fiscal 2016 that will allow for 150 new residential treatment beds among other services.

Health Care for All said it was "disappointed" that the committee's budget "does not reverse cuts announced by the Baker Administration to eligibility for the Health Safety Net program," which the group said provides health care access for people "ineligible for any other health care program."

The Senate budget rolls $14 million unspent in fiscal 2016's Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program into the fiscal 2017 voucher program, giving it a total of $100 million, according to Spilka, who said the additional funding would allow for 350 to 400 new rental assistance vouchers. The same budget level-funds at $155 million emergency assistance for families who are often put up in motels if shelter space is unavailable. That line-item nearly ran out of money this year before receiving a $41 million infusion from the Legislature.

"Don't we want to try to keep families in their homes and not send them to hotels?" Spilka replied when asked about the funding choices. She said, "We're all working very hard to move them out of hotels."

The Senate Ways and Means budget would adjust the language pertaining to eligibility for emergency family shelter, adding a provision that allows families to qualify if they have

"no other feasible alternative housing" and would otherwise qualify.

Spilka described that change as a clarification as opposed to an expansion of eligibility. Under current law, one of the ways families qualify for emergency shelter is if they are in "a housing situation not meant for human habitation."

"It's our position it's not a change. We shouldn't be telling people to be sleeping on the street one night with their kids to get access to shelter," Spilka told reporters.

Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, told the News Service the Senate language is "absolutely" a significant change, and one she supports. She said families who would otherwise need to sleep outdoors or at bus shelter or some other non-residential place would now be able to receive shelter if they have no other feasible housing.

Families who sleep in a place "not meant for human habitation" make up the second largest cohort of families qualifying for emergency shelter, at 15 percent, according to Turley. She said families with irregular housing are the largest category at 30 percent.

The Coalition for Homeless Individuals, which represents shelters and other services, expressed disappointment at the committee's recommendation to level-fund a line-item that supports homeless individuals.

"The critical funding in the Homeless Individuals Assistance line item helps providers to deliver shelter, housing, medical care, job training and substance abuse and mental health treatment to thousands of people experiencing homelessness across the Commonwealth, a formula to successfully transition men and women out of homelessness," said Springfield's Friends of the Homeless Executive Director Bill Miller in a statement.

Because the House already passed its version, the Senate budget debate next week is the last chance for advocates to see a boost in their favored line items within the fiscal 2017 budget.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council said the Ways and Means budget would reduce its funding to $13 million, down $1 million from the fiscal 2016 budget, and urged supporters to call for $17 million in arts and culture funding.

Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of non-profits aiming to keep people living independently at home, said while Spilka's budget message noted "demographic shifts" the budget fails to adequately support seniors, who are the "fastest growth cohort in our state."

Analysis by Norman shows that the committee's budget is "nearly identical" to that of the governor and the House, reducing home care by more than $771,000.

"Rhetoric's OK, but we need revenue," Norman told the News Service. He said, "Older people now outnumber younger people in this state."

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation said the committee budget level-funds civil legal aid at $17 million, a sum that "falls short of what is needed to address the profound gap in access to civil legal aid that exists for low-income individuals and families in the Commonwealth."

Sens. William Brownsberger and Cynthia Stone Creem will file amendments to increase civil legal aid funding by $3 million, according to the group.

Geoff Foster, director of organizing at UTEC, Inc., which works with at-risk youth, was pleased that the committee "fully" funded the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative at $8.9 million.

"We are incredibly appreciative of their prioritization of [Safe and Successful Youth Initiative] as a program with proven outcomes to reduce violence through jobs, education, and street outreach, while also saving taxpayer dollars," Foster said in a statement.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg is hoping for more feedback on the budget. The Amherst Democrat on Tuesday outlined a social media engagement strategy to broadcast the Senate's actions during budget week onto Twitter and other online platforms.

Last year there were 6,100 social media posts related to the Senate budget and 945,000 unique users in the audience, Rosenberg told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

"I'm not a millennial, but I'm trying," said Rosenberg, who elicited groans from the gathered crowd when he announced prizes for the senator, staffer and advocate deemed most "enthusiastic" on Twitter.


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