Senator Spilka Votes to Pass Balanced Budget
(Boston) – The Massachusetts Senate on Friday voted unanimously to pass a $32.45 billion budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13), announced Senator Karen Spilka. The spending plan remains consistent with the Senate’s unfaltering pledge to prioritize funding for cities and towns and commitments that allow for greater transparency and smarter financial planning for the future. Using a combination of ongoing revenue initiatives, one-time resources, spending reductions, and no new taxes the plan closes a $1.4 billion budget gap, the smallest budget gap the state has faced since FY08.
As a result of the Senate’s fiscally responsible choices in previous years, this budget increases spending from FY12 and makes new targeted investments. The prudent choices made by the Legislature in recent years are also reflected by the state’s highest bond rating in history and its continued commitment to rebuilding our rainy day fund, which is on track to reach a projected balance of $1.2 billion by the end of FY13.
“This is a fiscally responsible budget that will ensure we remain on a path for continued economic growth and development while maintaining our commitment to increasing funding for education, our communities, and the services our most vulnerable citizens rely on,” said Spilka.
The hallmark of this budget is the Senate’s continuing commitment to its municipal partners by boosting investments in Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA), Chapter 70, and the Special Education Circuit Breaker, the three largest sources of direct state aid to cities, towns, and school districts.
The budget increases funding for local aid by $275.4 million over last year, including $900 million for unrestricted local aid. Chapter 70 funding is increased to $4.17 billion, ensuring that all school districts receive at least an additional $40 per pupil in aid. Regional School Transportation is also increased by $2 million over the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal to $45.52 million. Additionally, it fully funds the state’s obligation for Special Education Circuit Breaker at $242.2 million for first time since FY08, ensuring that students with special needs receive the services and education they deserve.
During three days of public debate, the Senate adopted a number of amendments to strengthen the bill, including many investments and provisions filed by Spilka.
One targeted investment championed by Spilka was an increase in funding for Regional Economic Development Organizations (REDOs) to $1 million. First established by Spilka’s Economic Development Reform Bill of 2010, these REDOs serve as the single point of contact in their area to support their communities, help existing businesses grow, and attract new investment to their regions.
The Senate also adopted Spilka’s amendment to increase transparency of the finance and operations of state authorities and quasi-public agencies. It requires that each authority establish an internal audit committee, be subject to biennial audits by the State Auditor, and have an annual independent audit of its funds. These two audits and all financial statements would be made available to the public through the Commonwealth’s new “Open Checkbook” website.
“The Senate has led the way in increasing government transparency and accountability and this amendment is an extension of our important work,” said Spilka. “With this amendment, we will standardize the way all of our public agencies are monitored and professionalize the way we judge compliance. It will give us a better understanding of the allocation of resources and makes government more open and transparent.”
Continuing the commitment to a strong human services sector, the Senate budget included a $20 million Salary Reserve for human services workers. An amendment filed by Spilka creates a fund to improve the hourly wage of nearly 31,500 low-paid direct care workers who are currently making less than $40,000 per year. The fund will give these vital and dedicated workers the first annualized salary increase since 2008.
“As a former social worker, I know how important it is to that we support these workers, who provide essential services on our behalf,” said Spilka. “This adjustment will help stabilize this vital but low-paid workforce which provides our most vulnerable citizens, including our children, our elders, and our disabled with the assistance they need to attain the highest possible quality of life.”
The Senate makes critical contributions to education initiatives across the Bay State targeting economic and community development and making key investments that will help better prepare citizens for continuing education and to enter the workforce.
The budget calls for increased oversight of community colleges, incorporating input from industry officials and vocational-technical schools to ensure they are best equipped to adapt to the changing job opportunities in the Commonwealth. It establishes the Office of Coordination within the Department of Higher Education to serve as a clearinghouse for all training opportunities provided by public higher education institutions.
This budget continues the commitment to improving public higher education resources and connecting those resources to workforce needs across the state. New programs include a Rapid Response workforce program to expedite the process for community colleges to create a workforce training program by targeting specific requests from employers and the creation of a degree auditing system to more easily track credits, making it simpler for students to transfer from community colleges to a state university.
In the wake of years of fiscal challenges and reduction in services, municipalities face myriad obstacles and public safety remains at the top of that list. In an effort to address this, the Senate budget recommends investing in three key programs: Shannon Grants, which help maintain partnerships at the local level to address the root causes of gang violence; the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, which targets services to youth that have been identified as most likely to be criminally involved; and support for municipal police staffing in cities with the highest crime rates where violent crime have increased as police staffing has decreased.
It provides $750,000 for a new State Police Public Benefit Fraud Unit that will be charged with working with other local, state, and federal authorities to investigate and pursue cases where benefits intended to help our neediest families are being misused. Furthermore, it requires all stores that accept cash assistance benefits to post a sign explaining where to report fraud and expands the list of restricted items that cannot be purchased with cash assistance benefits and directs the Inspector General to conduct a survey to uncover inconsistent or contradictory information that is provided by cash benefit recipients.
The Senate also unanimously passed an amendment to increase public safety by closing a drunk-driving loophole that was exposed by a Supreme Judicial Court ruling last week. The language would enhance penalties for repeat drunk drivers and ensure that repeat drunk driving offenders face appropriate penalties.
In addition to those mentioned above, Senator Spilka successfully advocated for a number of other amendments which were included in the final Senate budget:
- $500K in additional funding for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Pipeline;
- Reconstituting the Foundation Budget Review Commission to review the foundation budget education formula on an ongoing basis and report back to the Legislature next year on the effectiveness of the formula;
- $5 million for the Community Preservation Trust Fund;
- Authorizing municipalities to transition to secure electronic billing to collect taxes, which has proven to save cities and towns money and time;
- $500,000 for equipment and improvements to the planetarium at the McAuliffe Challenger Learning Center at Framingham State University;
- $75,000 in additional funds for the Women’s Veteran’s Network to ensure that women veterans receive the proper benefits and care once they return from their service;
- 10% increase in funding over last year for all veteran’s outreach programs, including the Natick Veterans’ Oral History Project;
- $214,000 for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities to keep senior citizens independent and thriving in their communities; and
- Requiring that the 10 day nursing home “bed hold” for medical and non-medical leaves to continue to be funded by the Medicaid program.
The legislature will now appoint a six member conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget before sending it to the Governor for his signature.