BOSTON (AP)- The Senate Ways and Means Committee released a nearly $34 billion state budget proposal Wednesday for the fiscal year starting July 1 - a spending plan significantly less than the plan Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled earlier this year.
The Senate plan includes a spending increase of $1.4 billion, or about 4.4 percent, over the current fiscal year, including $403 million in new spending on housing, education, mental health and veteran services programs.
Senate leaders said the plan will close what they describe as a $1.2 billion budget gap.
The proposal relies on new revenues from a joint transportation plan agreed to with the House last month. That proposal will generate about $500 million in new revenues, including hikes in gasoline and cigarette taxes.
The Senate plan, like the House budget, also taps the state's rainy day fund for $350 million, which would leave the fund with a balance of about $1.3 billion.
The House passed a $34 billion budget last month that also increases total state spending about 4 percent over current year levels. The Senate plans to begin debating its budget proposal next week.
Both legislative spending proposals are smaller than the 7 percent spending increase sought by Patrick. Patrick had asked for nearly $2 billion in new taxes, including a hike in the state income tax coupled with a lowering of the state sales tax.
The governor said the additional spending is needed to upgrade the state's aging transportation infrastructure - including the MBTA - and ensure that every child in Massachusetts, regardless of family income, receives a quality education.
Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer outlined some of the highlights of the Senate's plan.
Brewer said the proposal includes a $166 million increase in local aid spending over the current fiscal year. He said it also includes $900 million in unrestricted government aid and increases spending for local education, known as Chapter 70 funds.
He said the budget plan would increase funding for mental health services by more than $30 million, maintaining 626 inpatient mental health beds, including 45 beds at Taunton State Hospital
Brewer, D-Barre, acknowledged that while the Massachusetts' economy is getting stronger, the state still faces "a number of fiscal challenges as we continue to recover from the economic collapse five years ago."
Officials from the University of Massachusetts say the Senate plan doesn't include enough money for the university system to institute a tuition-and-fee freeze during the upcoming academic year.
Officials said they need $478 million, which Patrick proposed and the House adopted. The Senate has proposed $455 million - an increase over the current $439 million, but not enough to guarantee a tuition freeze. Officials hope to push the Senate to adopt an amendment matching the higher number.
Other highlights of the Senate budget plan include:
- A $6.5 million increase in funding designed to eliminate the existing 1,500-person waiting list for elderly residents who need home care help to avoid going into assisted living facilities or nursing homes;
- Another $15 million to provide subsidized child care to families on a state waiting list;
- More than $57 million in rental assistance for low income families;
- About $8 million for the state's "Youth-at-Risk Summer Jobs" program.
Brewer said the budget doesn't pay for the new programs by relying on deep cuts to core government services.
Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr praised the Senate budget plan, saying it "clearly rejects once again the massive tax and spend measures that have been advocated by Gov. Patrick."
He said it also provides a "killed in the line of duty" death benefit for the family of MIT police officer Sean Collier, who investigators believe was killed by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Tarr warned against relying too heavily on tax increases to balance the budget.
"We need to ensure that the spending proposed ... can be sustained without continuing to resort to one-time fixes and burdening struggling household budgets with more taxes," Tarr said in a statement.
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