GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 20, 2013

Tarr wary of Senate budget plan revenues

From Wire and
Staff Reports

---- — BOSTON — The state Senate’s budget chief is describing differences between the House and Senate spending plans for fiscal 2014 as “incremental.”

But a quick review of the bill shows the branches taking different paths on education and welfare issues. And Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, notes that the Senate plan “rejects once again the massive tax and spend measures that have been advocated by Gov. Patrick,” he said. He remains concerned about the added revenue measures that are included.

The $33.9 billion Senate budget proposal scrapped several significant policy proposals touted by House leaders intended to improve oversight and accountability over early education and the public welfare system.

And while making significant new investments in public education, elder home care and transitional housing assistance, the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s budget proposal also took a less aggressive approach than the House toward increasing funding for the University of Massachusetts and other higher education institutions, potentially putting tuition and fees hikes for the next school year back on the table.

All of the issues are likely to come into play this week when the Senate opens debate on the fiscal 2014 budget plan.

“I’m not saying that anybody ignored any of those things, but the Senate president has got a comprehensive welfare reform piece that she is drafting, working on, that will be all encompassing,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer said.

“In order to put our state on a steady path toward economic prosperity and future balanced budgets,” said Tarr, “we need to ensure that the spending proposed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee can be sustained without continuing to resort to one-time fixes and burdening struggling household budgets with more taxes.

“The Senate Ways and Means budget makes a notable effort to reduce spending in many accounts,” he added. “Yet, in responding to yet another sizable budget gap, today’s proposal relies on a combination of over $627 million from one-time revenue sources and $450 million in tax increases, and that’s on top of the millions of dollars in additional tax increases that have been approved in recent years, including a $900 million increase in the sales tax implemented in 2009.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee last week endorsed its $33.9 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1, relying on $430 million in new taxes, $800 million in revenue growth and $627 million in reserves and one-time funding to support a $1.4 billion increase in year-to-year spending.

Like the House, the Senate plans falls well short of making the investments sought by Gov. Deval Patrick in transportation and education through his $1.9 billion tax proposal. Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor said the administration was reviewing the budget, with the governor’s priorities in mind.

UMass officials are also likely to seek more than the $15 million increase in funding proposed by Senate Ways and Means, which they says falls short of what is necessary to freeze tuition and fees hikes next year.

The House proposed boosting funding for higher education to reach a 50-50 split with UMass over two years, and with state universities and community colleges over three years. At Senate spending levels, it would take four years to reach that goal.

Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said he supports ramping up state support for education funding, but would not offer an amendment next week out of deference to the work done by Ways and Means on the budget and the negotiations that will take place with the House after the Senate vote.

“Obviously as an advocate for public higher education, I want it much faster than that but I also know this is a process. I’m feeling hopeful that by the end of the process we can have a strong budget for public higher education on the governor’s desk,” Rosenberg said.

The House last month endorsed the creation of a new Bureau of Program Integrity to work on reducing fraud, improving oversight and standardizing eligibility determination processes for welfare benefits across agencies. The bill also required that electronic benefit transfer cards come with photo IDs.

Brewer said Department of Transitional Assistance officials have met with Senate leaders to outline their 100-day plan for reforming the agency after questions were raised about benefits going to recipients no longer eligible, or who no longer lived in Massachusetts.

“All of us are opposed to waste, fraud and abuse,” Brewer said. “It sullies the atmosphere for those that deservedly need to get those benefits and we’re all committed to making that happen.”