By Shira Schoenberg | July 22, 2019
The Massachusetts House and Senate on Monday passed a $43.1 billion state budget for fiscal 2020, 22 days after the start of the fiscal year.
The figure is larger than the budgets initially proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker and voted on by the House and the Senate earlier this year, all of which were closer to $42.7 billion.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston, called the budget “a balanced and fiscally responsible proposal built off of existing revenues we know we can count on going forward.”
The budget passed the House unanimously, 158-0. The Senate vote was 39-1.
The lone dissenting vote was Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who voiced concerns about a policy related to offshore wind energy.
The votes came less than 24 hours after the final version of the budget was released from a committee of House-Senate negotiators on Sunday.
It now goes to Baker, who has 10 days to review it. The governor can veto individual line items.
Strong tax revenues over the last few months led negotiators to increase by nearly $600 million the amount of money they expect the state to collect during fiscal 2020. Around half of that money is earmarked by law for the MBTA, the school building authority and the state’s rainy day fund, leaving an additional $317 million for general operating expenses.
The budget represents spending growth of $1.6 billion, or 4%, compared to fiscal 2019.
The budget does not include proposals Baker made for new taxes on opioid manufacturers, e-cigarettes and vaping products. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, said budget conferees “could not reach an agreement on those.”
It does include a provision proposed by Baker to require large online marketplaces, like eBay and Etsy, to collect states sales tax.
The budget will increase fees at the registry of deeds to fund the Community Preservation Act, which helps cities and towns preserve open space and build affordable housing.
The conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized the higher spending level. “Only in Massachusetts could two sides enter into a secretive budget negotiation and end up with a spending figure this much higher than either side was asking for,” said Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesman Paul Craney.
Asked why the budget was late, Rodrigues cited the “complexity” of issues, particularly around drug pricing.
The budget includes a compromise proposal that would let the secretary of health and human services negotiate additional rebates with drug manufacturers for drugs given to MassHealth patients. The proposal includes a process for the Health Policy Commission to get involved in determining whether a proposed drug price for a high cost drug is reasonable.
Budget negotiators had faced intense lobbying from drug companies and other health care organizations.
“It’s really complicated,” Rodrigues said. “I’m very happy that we landed somewhere in the middle between what the House proposed and what the Senate proposed, and that we will have on the books a law that will provide an opportunity for the secretary of health and human services to engage in real, meaningful discussions with drug manufacturers to save the taxpayers of the commonwealth real money.”
The budget makes a large investment in education, putting $5.176 billion toward Chapter 70 local education aid — an increase of nearly $270 million over last year.
It revamps a charter school funding formula so districts who send students to charter schools will receive money for three years rather than six. The old formula was never fully funded.
A new $500,000 earmark will increase access to vocational technical schools with waiting lists.
Lawmakers are still working on a larger overhaul of the education funding formula.
Rep. Todd Smola, R-Warren, who was on the committee of House-Senate negotiators, said the budget’s passage is only a beginning. “So many issues brought up are things we’ll continue to work on,” Smola said.
The budget gives $558 million to the University of Massachusetts. It does not include language proposed by the Senate that would have required UMass to freeze in-state tuition and fees.
UMass officials have said they anticipate raising tuition and fees by 2.5%.
The budget will require the UMass president and board of trustees to meet with legislative leaders by Jan. 15 and provide information about their spending for the past five years and their projected budgets for the next five years, including efforts to reduce tuition and fees.
Zac Bears, executive director of PHENOM, a higher education advocacy group, said lawmakers are “forcing tuition and fee hikes on thousands of students and families by underfunding our public colleges for yet another year.”
A UMass spokesman declined to say whether UMass still plans to raise tuition and fees next year, since the board of trustees will not set tuition rates until its next board meeting.
UMass President Marty Meehan said in a statement that the university is grateful to Baker and the Legislature for its support. “The appropriation of additional funds to cover the state’s share of collective bargaining increases allows us to proceed with our FY20 budget as projected and continue focusing on the most important aspect of our mission – providing our students with a world-class UMass education,” Meehan said.
In a statement, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos called the public education funding “a significant down payment towards the equitable pre-K-12 school funding that students across Massachusetts so desperately need.” But she said she is “disappointed” the budget does not increase funding for higher education.
The budget includes $50 million in additional money to pay for nursing home care, to help the state’s financially struggling nursing homes. A commission will be established to look at the future financial stability of nursing homes.
The budget puts $150 million into substance abuse treatment programs. A bulk purchasing program that helps municipalities and nonprofits pay for the anti-overdose drug naloxone was funded with $500,000, which would let the state subsidize the price of the drug.
Another $10 million will go to a new behavioral health trust fund to pay for mental health initiatives, including a loan forgiveness program for behavioral health workers and a public awareness campaign to reduce the stigma around mental illness. The budget will limit the time during which insurance companies can claw back payments they already made to outpatient behavioral health providers.
Regional Transit Authorities will get $90.5 million, of which $3.5 million will be reserved for performance incentive grants.